Risen From Despair
Grilled took a huge step towards completing their domestic cup collection, with a dramatic late surge against II.4 opponents Dragon Devil's. The Dragons - or the Devils, as the case may be - were cruising to the finals on the back of Oliver Heido's 17th minute would-be winning goal, and the Birds were becoming increasingly miserable, as the clock ticked down. They needed a champion, and it would come in the form of Bilal Mohammad Harun
For all of Dragon Devil's relatively low profile, they clearly had the goods - longtime affiliates of established Swiss club AC Gladiator, they had downed two Division Two challengers in Between a Walk and a Hard Pace and Sim(TM), just to get this far. Dutch frontman Matthieu Schaffers had scored in both of those, along with bomber fullback Dan Prisăcariu. This had not been done at the expense of their league ambitions either, with them sitting in a very respectable second, a win behind former Singapore Cup winners Random Curiosity FC.
Northern Irish head coach Carlton Metcalfe wasn't one to mess with a working formula, and his sole indulgence for this match would be to place Prisăcariu more centrally, which entirely made sense, given the Birds' current practice of compacting play. For his part, the significance of this game didn't stop Hovaness Noubaryan
from his policy of rotating positions, with Bernie Egan
liberated from his defensive duties to become point man. Chan Ze Han
would start in central midfield, while Moey Xin Seng
filled in at left wing.
This was probably not the Birds' strongest configuration, and it showed, as they were dressed down by the Dragon Devil's marquee star, Chong Puay Jun, in the beginning. The 29 year-old one-club man was in his prime as a playmaker, and his understanding with former Marina Bay Sands wingman Sunil Pentaparthi bordered on the telepathic at times. They played keep-ball between themselves brilliantly about the 17th minute, and while Yuta Nakakita
had organized his defence competently, he could not prevent centreback Oliver Heido from taking a pop from just inside the area. It would be a worldie too, going in off the underside of the crossbar.
tried to nullify that immediately with some determined dribbling right off the bat, but he skimmed his finish wide left. Inspired by Neeraj Muthyala
, Grilled wrested the initiative back, and Moey Xin Seng
's vaunted aggression got him past Heido in the 29th - but Vivencio Campo Lameiro got down splendidly. Muthyala would go it himself after a clever interchange with Bernie Egan
a bit later on, but he was far too conservative at the end.
It could have been all over had Li Cheng Heng gotten his free volley on target a couple of minutes on, with Grilled having pushed themselves a level above their usual tempo, but fortunately Dob's poor positioning went unpunished. Noubaryan was taking notes, and his instructions to cool off till half-time were thankfully heeded. He then made two changes during the interval: Gilbert Webb
on for an indifferent Hoàng Trung Quá
, who had been giving Clément Grivot too much respect; and Chu Xin Lee
for Moey Xin Seng
There were few immediate effects on Grilled's performance, and Dragon Devil's if anything seemed to have gotten comfortable with their circumstances. Chong was more often than not fighting Grilled's advances to a standstill, as they opted to work on the counter. Things came to a head with Daniel Škrabal's sudden rush in the 67th minute, which would only be halted by an inch-perfect sliding tackle from Yuta Nakakita
. Škrabal wanted the penalty, but referee George Pârvu disagreed, and the Number 96's persistence would bring him only an unneeded yellow card.
Other than that, Dragon Devil's definitely had more reason to be pleased. Their lead aside, the Birds were generally getting nowhere with their attacks, while they were getting occasional great chances to lock the game down. For instance, Škrabal hit a corner in the 72nd minute that would come to land perfectly for Oliver Heido, and Grilled's only saving grace was that Heido hadn't expected that either. Massoud Dob
got the extra second he needed to get across his goal to cover, although he did pull his calf in the process.
The stoppage was much welcomed by all concerned, Grilled because they needed desperately to come up with a new plan, and Dragon Devil's as they were well on the way to winning. Metcalfe would seize the chance to make their first substitution, replacing Pentaparthi with the more defensively-minded Frenchman Noah Tisne.
Many Grilled supporters at Singa Arena could barely bear to watch, as precious minutes passed without any real progress. Islom Davlatov
had probably been their best forward of the day, but that wasn't saying much, as he tended to find himself held up by Dan Prisăcariu in the best case. Bernie Egan
had opened a few doors with his pace, but had undeniably faded, and no-one else seemed to have made an impression on Dragon Devil's backline.
They had all but forgotten the third man in that triumvirate, though - Bilal Mohammad Harun
. Never exactly prolific, and more a midfielder by temperament, Bilal did nevertheless pack explosives in his boots. With Dragon Devil's happily staying deep, he figured that it was now or never as he received the ball twenty-five yards out, and swung a low effort at the far post. The wicked curve and single bounce was enough to fool Vivencio Campo Lameiro, so it happened, and Grilled were suddenly back in it!
It was a complete 180 for the opposition, who had perhaps mentally checked out prematurely. A panicked attempt to muster a response fell flat, with even captain Chong apparently unsure of whether to try and settle it in normal time, or stick it out for extra time. They wouldn't be given the peace they needed to settle, as they only barely survived a maniac Grilled all-in mobbing, straight through the middle. Lameiro only just about tipped Muthyala's finish over, before the match was again paused for the stricken Cyril Künzler
, who had strained his back in the build-up.
Dragon Devil's used the break to nail down their response, which would be to hunker further down. Unfortunately for them, Bilal had been set on fire, and the Grilled fans were a single voice urging him to shoot, when he next received the ball. Lameiro could not be said to have been taken unaware, but Bilal's accuracy would be once more too good for him.
With barely five minutes left to rescue the game, a grim Metcalfe would send Mongolian supersub Ssima Suren on. While Suren had energy to spare, however, his teammates were barely standing by this point, likely more from the mental blow than any physical shortcomings. Grivot would hit it towards goal from way outside as injury time wound down, but that wasn't anything that would threaten Massoud Dob