Equal With The Best
It was somewhat ironic that Grilled Birds would be the ones to snap reigning Singapore Cup holders Bot Team FC's five-match winning streak in the S-League, but they were mere seconds from a win, into the bargain; if ever evidence that there were no gimmes in the top flight was needed, this was it.
On paper, it was an unfair matchup - one one side, you had the Birds, a team with essentially non-existent spirits and which had failed to gain a single point. On the other, you had the Bots, who had conquered first the S-League, and then the Singapore Cup, in the preceding two seasons, and who had rolled over all comers. Undefeated in regular time in all thirteen games leading up to this, their only draw had been against Costa Rican Primera División champions MFF b in the Hattrick Masters, where they eventually went out on penalties.
Bot Team FC were so assured, in fact, that they were willing to bring out a gaggle of reserves in a defensive 5-3-2 today, obviously reserving the major part of their strength for the Singapore Cup semifinals. National playmaker Kwek Puay Lai started alongside Nicholas Phang, as did striker Oleg Konaev, but other big names such as Stewart Russell and Phang Lai Chuan were conspicuously absent. There was at least an excuse for central midfielder Alexander Minarovský, who had picked up a strain in the Masters.
Want-away Florus Romijn
would be on the bench for Grilled, his left wing spot filled by Islom Davlatov
, as the Birds stuck with what they knew best. Neeraj Muthyala
had to celebrate - or not - his 31st birthday still laid up, which opened the way for Chu Xin Lee
. None of this tweaking convinced the bookies, some of whom had refused to take bets, and things went true to form with George Chişcă clobbering Grilled on the counter, after they had absorbed Vikram Mudaliar
's fourth-minute advance.
The next half-hour threw up nothing remarkable, edifying the good chunk of the Birds support that had decided to stay home. Massoud Dob
was on his A-game as he made multiple stops, including one from Óscar Antonio Cepeda's top-drawer free-kick. It was lights out when a left-flank attack broke down in the 39th minute, though, as Kwek Puay Lai wriggled out of Moey Xin Seng
's coverage, to assist the overlapping Nico Lopo at the end of a majestic dribble.
It was as if a switch had been flipped at 2-0, to the great surprise of the audience, and Grilled could easily have been level by half-time. Islom Davlatov
tore through in a sign that things had changed, and smashed it over with Nicolas Jardin at his mercy. Not that the French goalkeeper was long for the game, as he would be rammed into next month by Moey's merciless sliding entrance in a fifty-fifty situation.
With Jardin out for 40 year-old Colombian backup Esneider Lotta, Hovaness Noubaryan
was spotted directing his players to shoot on sight, and Chan Ze Han
needed no second invitation. His sidewards-spinning grounder would not be held by Lotta on the first attempt, but he recovered well enough to block Gilbert Webb
's follow-up as well, upon which young referee Philipp Christoph Gassler blew for time.
Grilled took plenty of encouragement from how the half had ended, though, and there was no doubting that Bot Team FC's goal looked far more vulnerable with Lotta and not Jardin between the posts, despite that double save. Bhavya Panigrahi
replaced Yuta Nakakita
, and strove to maintain a high line together with Webb, as the Birds figured that they had nothing much to lose from continuing their barrage.
The visitors were again overrun in midfield, not exactly an unreasonable outcome given their formation, but more pertinently their backline was also finally beginning to crack. Moey had not been discouraged by his yellow card, and had revved up if anything; he took on and got past a Kong Kian Chee not exactly in his favoured position in the 54th minute, and forced a pass into the crowded six-yard box, where Chu Xin Lee
made it happen.
Grilled nearly let all of that hard work go to waste after Panigrahi had given away a free-kick on the edge of the area, but Óscar Antonio Cepeda thankfully dragged it marginally wide. Attuned to the goings-on, Noubaryan next took the underperforming Kalki Parvathaneni
off for Bernie Egan
, and was soon rewarded with the equalizer, from Moey Xin Seng
's worldie bent in from the right, which was voraciously received by the starved home crowd.
All belief was strongly on Grilled's side now, as Bot Team FC's composure appeared to crack, a rare sight indeed. Having visited Mia San Toa Payoh and KingofNoobs United without conceding, and destroyed the likes of Canadian Cup victors Brave Beavers with massed firepower, they were somehow reeling at The Cooking Pot. Head coach Li Aik Beng, usually a picture of calm, was led to personally impose order from the sidelines.
Li's gamble on the lineup and well and truly gone awry, however, and there would be no fixing it on the fly. Kong for one was definitely not enjoying his deep role, and neither was Italian skipper Fabio Trasferti, who had also gotten used to their usual high-line system. There wasn't much movement by the defenders when Cyril Künzler
plugged a cross inside in the 75th, and the stadium absolutely exploded when Chan Ze Han
took it on the volley to give Grilled a 3-2 lead against the visitors.
The home fans were singing non-stop now, and it was Bot Team FC who were holding on for dear life, as their weakness under prolonged pressure got found out. Moey and Bilal Mohammad Harun
bombed forward as Davlatov confidently took it up the left, and Cepeda's last-ditch block on the final ball probably saved his team from going further behind there. Nicholas Phang put in some great tackles to relieve his comrades, as Grilled tried again and again.
It was beginning to dawn on all present that Grilled might actually pull this off, as the minutes ticked away with the action largely limited to Bot Team FC's own half; the last club to defeat them in a competitive encounter had been the Fringeheads. Alas, the Birds did complete the ninety minutes still in front, only to succumb to an injury time equalizer, as Kong Kian Chee nicked it on Konaev's sly layoff.