Though their fourth-round Singapore Cup meeting had ended 4-1 in Grilled's favour, this fixture being held at St. Xavier's FC's intimidating Living Hell home ground had many pundits making it out to be a tougher game. Throw in a torrential downpour, and the hosts being intent on holding out for a point at least, and it was a wonder that the Birds got away with all three.
Unlike in the main cup, French head coach François Goncalves had very obviously gone for the draw with an ultra-defensive 5-5-0, quite expectedly given the opportunity for national honours in the Singapore Sapphire Challenger Cup. With Real ChamWin F.C up next Wednesday, Xaviers like Grilled were hardly about to exhaust themselves overly.
Definitely, this was hardly Xaviers' usual configuration, and required some like Liew Feng Liang being shoehorned into positions that they were not entirely comfortable with. Regular captain Mateusz Uchacz had been rested together with strike partner Ahmed Eboka, as had Levi Chin, which left Spanish goalie Antoni Sauri the unenviable task of holding it all together. Grilled for their part fielded their usual 2-5-3, including left winger Heng Dong Chu
, who made his first start in a month.
The forty-thousand odd spectators would soon come to see that this would resemble a battle of attrition more than a football game, given the conditions and Xaviers' resolution. There would be no allocation for fast, sweeping moves, as the match broke up into mudfights interspersed with long punts in the general direction of the other goal. If anyone could be said to have thrived, it had to be Xaviers' national team prospect Li Nie Jie, who hardly came off the worse in any of his challenges.
The first half-hour saw Bilal Mohammad Harun
's 22nd minute strike dragged wide as the only real attempt, and it was getting slightly dreary up until Hilman Abd Ghani Husain Khairul Akmal squared up to Moey Xin Seng
following a tackle. Moey would go down after a shove out of nowhere, and after German referee Mateja Virić regained order, Hilman was off. This was clearly not what Goncalves had been expecting, and upon figuring that he might as well roll the dice, he allowed Yip Chang Aik his debut in place of Zubaidi Izzat Aizat Amrin.
This probably wasn't as bad as it seemed, since there being ten or nine men packed at the back didn't make that much of a difference, and the hosts instead went ahead on their first try. Nobody on Grilled's end took Wong Ah Min too seriously as he splashed up the right wing, considering the lack of support, but it happened that Nikhil Sethi alone would be enough to volley the cross past Massoud Dob
certainly didn't imagine that was possible under these weather conditions, judging from his expression, but to Grilled's credit they were right back in Xaviers' face, in a jiffy. They could really bombard Sauri when they wanted, so it seemed, and Vikram Mudaliar
would equalize after initially eating a top-drawer save. Sauri turned superman in the final few minutes of the half, however, as he pulled off an unbelievable double stop from Chu Xin Lee
and then Cyril Künzler
The home team would double down on defending after this, and were pretty good at it; despite Neeraj Muthyala
's fresh legs, Grilled were hardly able to get a sniff at Sauri's goal for the entire second half, not helped by now playing against the wind for much of it. Xaviers were moreover only too willing to get stuck in, and the day seemed headed for the draw that they were after.
The Birds had gotten into the habit of winning, however, and Künzler had not gotten tired of trying just yet. With about seven minutes to go, he traced out a path around both Yip Chang Aik and Alberto Belgrano on his flank, before pulling his cross deep... where it would be met by the onrushing Bhavya Panigrahi
, who pounded it straight into the net, going in just under the crossbar. There were certainly few endings as sweet for Panigrahi, and indeed the Birds, whose turn it then was to drag the minutes out.