New Era Begins
An exhilarating 4-3 thrill ride saw Grilled Birds finally complete their set of national cups, with their seventh cup final victory out of seven. Ang Mo Kio opponents Puh erh were nothing but exceptional for a club in just their fourth full season, and moreover seized the lead not once but twice; the killer instinct in the Birds' DNA remained, though, and golden boy Chan Ze Han
rang in a new chapter in the history of the club, with a brilliant winner in the 76th minute.
Puh erh's Polish head coach Siemowit Żmudzki had evidently given much thought to what had to be Puh erh's biggest game thus far, and he opted to kick off in a 4-5-1, with fullback Roman Arendarczyk added to the side that had whitewashed Yew Tea, and Spanish forward Ambrosio Posadas dropped from the starting XI. Grilled, as promised, came out in what Noubaryan touted as their strongest configuration - which involved Bilal Mohammad Harun
filling in at central defence.
There would be no warm-up period as the Birds bombed forward from the whistle, and Julio César Santos would be forced into his first of many saves barely two minutes in, as Vikram Mudaliar
latched onto a searching long ball by Yuta Nakakita
. Puh erh's first priority after that signal of intent would be to calm the action down, which they achieved with Costantino Bassani having identified Islom Davlatov
as Grilled's primary threat in the build-up.
The almost-relaxed pace that the match would slow to at times quite belied the tension in the air, and there was a growing sense that the first goal would be pivotal. There was no indication of it when it came, as an intuitive backheel by Moey Xin Seng
in central midfield, would drop perfectly for Bilal Mohammad Harun
; strictly speaking, Bilal had no business being where he was, but he certainly wasn't about to let his assigned role affect his hot scoring streak. Striking early from some yards outside the box, Bilal found the far bottom corner with unerring precision, for his fourth goal in three matches.
Any expectations of Puh erh being undone were shattered immediately though, as they equalized on their very next possession. Cory Trang kept it in on the right, and former national and U-20 regular Surarihan Chavan swept it crossfield for Marco Tulio Zuñiga. Zuñiga would go on to embarrass Bilal and Yuta one after the other with his fearlessly-direct dribbling, before scooping it over an advancing Massoud Dob
That was enough excitement for Puh erh to last them for a while, going from how they settled back into their original routine. The onus was back on Grilled to create, which was far easier said than done against Puh erh's deceptively tight and cynical defending. Moey Xin Seng
would vent his frustrations on the ball after a call went against him, for which he received a booking.
The final returned to life with a Grilled free-kick inciting some chaos in the Puh erh box, but Arendarczyk would finally muscle Kalki Parvathaneni
aside to apply a big boot. This transitioned into a lightning counter that had Yassin Abou Ghali volley it off the crossbar, which within seconds had turned into another Grilled free-kick right on the edge of the penalty area... from which Cyril Künzler
returned the woodwork favour.
There may have been only two goals in the half, but it sure seemed far longer than it was, if only from the intensity towards the end. Żmudzki likely assessed that his side had better odds going for it, and returned to their usual 3-5-2 with Bassani coming off for a fresh-and-ready Posadas.
He was probably right, from how uncomfortable Grilled suddenly looked, against a Puh erh side on the warpath. The Birds had never been too convincing without the ball, and Arendarczyk's slick change of plans in the 56th minute saw Zuñiga get in behind the last man. Dob barely had time to set himself, before the deadly Costa Rican had sidefooted it past him.
It was Noubaryan's turn to draw upon his reserves, and he would take Moey off for Chu Xin Lee
, with the former's yellow card probably a factor. It seemed to work too, as Grilled were back level in three minutes - Yuta Nakakita
had been afforded far too much space from twenty yards out, and this disrespect would be answered with a screamer of a goal.
Puh erh were at the peak of their aggressiveness about this time, and Rémi Borms would put them back ahead in no time at all, with a solo rampage across the whole of the attacking half. It was undeniably a goal worthy of deciding a cup final, and from Puh erh's extended celebrations, it was hard to think that they didn't believe it.
With only about twenty minutes left, the Grilled faithful could not help but be stressed, and the only consolation was that Puh erh had kept their formation relatively open. This would be to their detriment, as Davlatov would be able to take the ball to the head of their box in the 71st minute. The defence would be overloaded after Davlatov switched play across, and Chu Xin Lee
came up with a sweet one-two with Kalki, before skipping past a committed Santos to confront an empty net.
This second comeback finally had Żmudzki shaken, and he would be up on his feet, exhorting his players to attack. Very unfortunately, Grilled were in a position to pounce on any mistakes, and a rushed pass by Yassin Abou Ghali to Chan Ze Han
in the 75th minute would be their downfall. Chan had no lack of options, but no lack of confidence either, and he ran it himself past two defenders before catching Santos out with a lob - which was also Chan's milestone 50th competitive goal!
It had been a rollercoaster recovery that readers might well have criticized as overly-dramatic had it been scripted, what with the symbolism of Chan's strike to top it off. There was more to come, however, after Puh erh's last notable effort proved to be Antonio Bastianutti's 80th minute free-kick, well-saved by Dob - 44 year-old legend Tian Yonghang
was to be Grilled's only substitute, in for Bilal in injury time, as a living icon of the club's proud cup tradition.