So Near Yet So Far
The semifinals would be the death of both Grilled Birds' and the Farmer Bunnies' cup dreams, with the former crashing 0-4 to Sarcastic Fringeheads, who demonstrated just why they are one win from a third successive trophy. They targeted the Birds' weaknesses systematically, and although disgruntled fans might whine that Chu Xin Lee
's unfortunate injury fatally reduced the Birds' attacking mojo, there could be no doubt by the end that they deserved to go through.
In contrast to Hovaness Noubaryan
making next to no changes to his preferred lineup and formation, Satrap Kabiri would rejig to a 4-4-2, drawing upon the sheer depth in his squad. Former Scottish and Andorran internationals Ryan Kerr and Ramsès Prats would lead the line, as they sought the counterattacking tack that had stymied Grilled so often. As would soon be seen, they turned out to be frighteningly good at it - better, indeed, than most specialists.
The match had certainly drawn its fair share of spectators, and the 118,187 that made it to Woodside Park, thousands of whom were perched on temporary hoardings on the track, would make for Grilled's sixth-highest ever attendance, and the largest since their Singapore Cup final win against Random Curiosity FC, twenty seasons ago. Sadly, it would not be as finely-poised as the rough equality in support might suggest, as the Birds gave the appearance of getting drawn into Sarcastic Fringeheads' game, from very early on.
Of course, many teams have lived to regret downplaying what sheer offensive intent could achieve, in Grilled's case, but the opponents today were simply too seasoned; not only that, they received a considerable boost when Chu Xin Lee
reared up clutching his right hamstring, in just the sixth minute. Chu would continue after a liberal application of magic spray, but he had clearly lost some of his explosiveness, something that was badly needed from one of Grilled's most creative playmakers in recent months.
Sarcastic Fringeheads were far too canny to let such a vulnerability pass their notice, and they would subtly shift their shape to reflect Chu's reduced mobility. Two minutes later, they would break Grilled's defence with a flawlessly-crafted overload on Gilbert Webb
on their right, with Kerr and David Koppensteiner advancing on him in lockstep. Webb did as well as he could be expected to, nearly nicking it from Kerr, but the pass went through for Koppensteiner to shuffle past Massoud Dob
Grilled weren't exactly out of it despite the setback, it had to be said, and in fact were bossing possession here - no mean feat against the defending champs. However, they found Fringeheads' positioning far too prepared, and Mudaliar and Chu could find no way inside despite their constant probing. Moey would be booked for a somewhat petty takedown of Ivan Borichev in the 26th minute, but the true turning point would come with ex-Chinese U-20 winger Wu Jinglong's charge on Chu Xin Lee
. That spelt the end of Chu's day, as whatever had kept his right thigh going, was no longer working.
This led to some worried discussion on the Birds bench, who seemd to have been expecting the worst - under normal circumstances, Islom Davlatov
would have been the obvious choice to replace Chu, but the Uzbek was barely match-fit himself. Finally, Polish veteran Cyril Künzler
was sent on as an inverted wide forward, as Noubaryan sought to improvise against Fringeheads' stifling central defence.
It could have worked, actually, only to backfire in the cruellest of manners. The free-kick restart was delivered by Künzler straight to the oncoming Neeraj Muthyala
, only for him to fire marginally over with Radu Pandelescu well beaten. A cooperative ball-boy allowed an immediate Fringeheads counter, and some individual magic from Kerr led to the unlikely sight of Andrej Apatič steaming past everyone else for the tap-in.
Grilled would stick with the original plan, less out of any particular remaining conviction, as due to the understanding that they weren't equipped for anything else anyway, and certainly not when two goals down. It might have paid off on another day too, but Fringeheads were getting all the breaks that mattered. Not many goalies could have seen Kalki Parvathaneni
's curling strike arriving, in the 56th minute, but Pandelescu did, and Wu Jinglong buried the ensuing cross from German winger Mladen Milostić.
The Birds were getting rather deflated, and it was all over after Ryan Kerr placed the finishing touch on yet another excellent counter in the 70th, this coming after Bernie Egan
's flying volley. The only true damage that Fringeheads received would be a knock to Algerian national star Zaki Taleb, who lasted all of two minutes on the pitch before being upended brutally by Kalki. No trouble for them, however, as they simply threw on Salman Al-Qasem as Kalki received a stern talking-to and yellow card.
Grilled were left with trying to salvage some pride with a consolation goal, and after Chew Fu Chuan nearly made it five, Cyril Künzler
came very close with a suddent stop-start dribble that threw Andrej Apatič off for once, but ultimately sent it to the outside of the far post. Heng Dong Chu
would bust a lung for the final ten minutes after coming on for Bernie Egan
, but it was all a fool's errand.