Four Into Eight
It was the Grilled Birds' eighth national-level cup final in their long history, and they did what they have always done, which was to win it. This Emerald Challenger Cup final was moreover perhaps the least theatrical of the lot, and indeed the first in which the Birds had managed to maintain a clean sheet.
That it would turn out this way was hardly a given, though. For one, Arcturules were rolling on a five-match winning streak, with their last loss coming against Bot Team FC, and which included a 4-0 victory over Puh erh - who happen to be Grilled's last cup finals opponents. Conversely, the Birds had lost their previous three league fixtures. Not only that, new Arcturules player-coach Loo Chee Chi had just splashed the cash for Jorge Roque Monteiro Rosa, Bo-Gunnar Robertsson and Laurent Meerli over the last week, each of whom cost anywhere from a cool twelve to fourteen million.
That told, only Rosa of the three would appear in the finals, as he claimed Loo's previous position on the right wing, with Loo himself moving into defence alongside Peruvian expat Wen Yunjing. This had Michael Pieselotten relegated to the bench, but other than this, there were no changes from the XI that defeated JUtd in the semifinals. For the Birds, Cyril Künzler
had wowed enough to retake his spot, but there would be no special dispensation for Chan Ze Han
, who was left out on his current form. Kalki Parvathaneni
started at left attack despite reports of a niggling knee concern, with Moey Xin Seng
leading the team out, for his 111st time.
It would soon become evident that Arcturules were geared towards being spoilers today, however, with even their forwards like Paul Höldrich uncharacteristically running Grilled players down when out of possession. While their willingness to execute a full-on press spoke well of their professionalism, this was nonetheless clearly not their accustomed style, which allowed the Birds to pick their way out of it perhaps more readily than might otherwise be expected.
Arcturules had not achieved their winning record out of nowhere, and certainly there are few sides in the country that are as fine an exponent in the standard 4-4-2, but Grilled demonstrated just why the 3-5-2 had been the more popular formation for some time. The Birds capitalized on their extra man in midfield exactly as theory suggested, and Arcturules would rediscover exactly why attack was generally preferred over defence; a slight lapse in the ninth minute saw Kalki Parvathaneni
get his nose in ahead of Loo, and this was enough for the Number 37 to place the ball past former national U-20 custodian Ang De Yong, after a short approach.
Künzler would then hog the audience's attention, as Grilled won themselves a couple of free-kicks close to the opposition box. They perhaps got a bit too clever on the first one, as Mudaliar and Davlatov's stepovers fooled exactly no one, leaving Muslim Ismail to charge Künzler's take down when it came. The next attempt in the 13th minute was much better, and Ang was nowhere near Künzler's fiercely-struck rocket towards the open far side of goal. The shot didn't dip in time, to the great relief of the Arcturules support in the stands behind.
Arcturules improved as they began reading Grilled's movements, and by the half-hour mark, the game was probably best described as even with Höldrich making some good runs towards Massoud Dob
's net. This turned out a false dawn for the East Coasters, sadly for them. Their commitment to pressing, always somewhat forced, loosened further as they began shifting their mindset back to offence, and it was nowhere in sight as the Birds advanced in force about the 33rd minute. Gilbert Webb
of all people would unlock their defence with a neat one-two off Chu Xin Lee
, and the Scottish defender then drilled it straight through for 2-0. There wasn't much subtlety about that effort - it was just hit hard enough that Ang couldn't stop it.
The Grilled fans' latest celebratory chant had barely died down, when it became three. Islom Davlatov
challenged Isa Ansori Hasnain successfully for once down the left side, and then turned him for a second time, heading for the outside. The cross came in short to Vikram Mudaliar
, who had been eyeing the development with great interest; the Grilled Number Nine was uncatchable as he burst forward with ball at feet, and Ang went to ground marginally too late.
Most in the stadium had to believe that this was it, judging from how funereal the Arcturules section had become, though almost all of them admirably stayed on. Loo Chee Chi had to tend to the flagging spirits of some of his men, however, most of all perhaps Hasnain, who took his inability to stop Davlatov for that last goal especially hard.
Loo did have some personnel in reserve, most notably Pieselotten, but then it was true that he had started with the best combination of players that he had. There was then nothing for it, but to stick with the gameplan and hope for the best. Arcturules would be caught between the need to start a comeback and the fear of conceding further, unfortunately, and this resulted in a staid second half - which was undeniably to Grilled Birds' liking. With a three goal lead in a cup final, most any team would be happy to circulate the ball amongst themselves!
It wasn't that Grilled weren't creating either, and Wen would have to bail his team out with a superb takeout of Mudaliar in the 73rd minute, that might well have been a red card and penalty had he been off by even an inch. Hovaness Noubaryan
chose this moment to further secure Grilled's advantage, as he signalled for a double substitution: Davlatov and Kalki off, Heng Dong Chu
and Chan Ze Han
This would be a little like kicking a downed man, but not before Arcturules crafted their biggest chance of the day, as Geppino Paoloni cleverly dribbled his way out of a mass of surrounding Birds. His through ball to Paul Höldrich was perfectly weighted, allowing Bhavya Panigrahi
no hope of making an interception. Massoud Dob
wasn't about to give up his clean sheet easily, though, and would launch himself at the striker's slightly-overconfident first touch, clearing it over the touchline.
Arcturules were clearly running short on endurance for a time, with the statistics showing that their players had been covering significantly more ground than usual; this got them nowhere closer to a consolation though with Grilled holding possession without too much ambition, at least until Heng Dong Chu
decided to go for it down the left. Isa Ansori Hasnain was again found wanting against the direct approach, and fellow substitute Chan Ze Han
polished it off nicely, to score for his second cup final.
Heng would have to lie down for the final whistle after sustaining a serious thigh strain in trying to protect the ball near the corner flag, but that wouldn't diminish his zest much if at all. It was the same for Bernie Egan
, who had spent his five-plus minutes since coming on for Chu Xin Lee
mostly acting as an additional midfielder.