On Another Level
Grilled Birds received a rude awakening as they fell to their first league defeat in a season in the S-League, with visitors United Legends FC outdoing them 3-1 at The Cooking Pot, in this opening-day derby. That made it the tenth victory in succession for the runaway II.1 champions, and the end of a streak of seven for Grilled.
There could be no remotely-easy matches at the top, of course, but the Birds had reason to be cautiously optimistic, home ground advantage aside. Their best XI was available, and had proven itself some of the best, both locally and internationally. Legends' Italian head coach Michele Antonelli - who had led them to a Division Two title in his first term there - would however recognize Chan Ze Han
's threat; This, to be fair, was quite obvious, though few thus had gone to the extent of setting a man-marker on him, which Antonelli did with Juan Luis San Sebastián.
The early mutual taking of measures would begin, as Legends invited the Birds to overextend themselves, through a busy defense in depth. For any breakouts, they had Ukrainian striker Vlad Makarin at the ready. Their opener would however derive not from Makarin, but from former Bulgarian U-20 international Valentin Chakúrov, who went against expectations by carrying the ball all the way into the Grilled penalty area by himself. Massoud Dob
seemed to have dealt with the situation magnificently by taking the ball from beneath Chakúrov's feet, and play had actually continued for half a minute when referee Jens Schrenk pulled it back - penalty!
VAR had apparently shown that Dob had swept the midfielder's leg out from under him, a split-second before reaching the ball, and this made the awarding of the spot kick technically correct, if unlikely without such involved video evidence. The home fans' attitude towards technology couldn't have been much improved as Laurent Goucher strode up for the execution, and he put it past Dob to grant Legend the advantage.
While a difficult twist for Grilled to stomach, they would be mostly in command for the rest of the half. Legends playmaker Andrey Buga would be booked shortly after due to persistently delaying a throw-in for tactical reasons, and after a long span of possession, Gilbert Webb
would nearly put Kalki Parvathaneni
through with an ultra-long punt, in the 29th minute. Sadly for Webb, neither he nor Makarin were quite looking where they were going at that moment in time, with a deleterious impact on Webb's gonads.
Vietnamese veteran Hoàng Trung Quá
was thus recalled to action, with Bhavya Panigrahi
a conspicuous absence from the available squad. In any case, Vikram Mudaliar
would swiftly fulfill Webb's original intent, as he raced through to equalize immediately upon the restart, leaving Iron Armijo no time to react.
The national forward's career was certainly hitting new heights, from the reaction as he presented himself to the adoring supporters upon scoring. Unfortunately, Grilled's questionable defence would be their downfull here, as the second half started with nobody tracking Monty Warren, after Yuta Nakakita
and Hoàng had drifted left to cover Ivan Mudrinić's dribble. Hovaness Noubaryan
would be seen to facepalm at how cheaply they had conceded then, with full knowledge of how costly it could - and would - be.
Only Massoud Dob
saved Grilled from crumbling instantly, as he sprang backwards to stop Vlad Makarin's strike in the next minute, after the forward had turned Yuta with incredible flair. The Birds pulled themselves together with Moey Xin Seng
leading by example, as he nearly assisted Mudaliar with a dinky disguised through pass in the 55th. Bilal Mohammad Harun
then had a go with his vaunted long-distance power, but Elvio Del Sorbo was watching, and courageously put himself in the path of the shot.
The visitors then put themselves back firmly in the driving seat through a piece of magic, as Valentin Chakúrov threw himself into the air to arc a bicycle kick beyond a stunned Dob, and into the far top corner. There was no preventing a goal of such brilliance, no matter what goalkeeper had been available, and not even the Grilled supporters could find it in their hearts to disparage its worth.
Now with two goals to chase, it was all the Birds could do to keep the pressure on, which was easier said than done with Legends fully into draining the stopwatch. Florus Romijn
's vigour found him cutting inside Sidor Shirshin on a mission to score, in the 77th minute, but Iron Armijo's good positioning prevented him from finding an opening.
came on for Chu Xin Lee
with ten minutes remaining, and Bernie Egan
for Bilal as a desperate final gamble, but neither were able to make an impression in the limited time left.