Chan Carries Torch
It had been twelve full seasons since The EV last visited The Cooking Pot, but the final score would be exactly the same. The EV had split their wins with Grilled in their three shared seasons in II.1, and there were only two holdovers from the squads of that period - Yuta Nakakita
, who came on as a late substitute, and Neeraj Muthyala
, who would sit it out on the bench.
The EV had conquered a II.3 containing teams such as newbies are newbies, Edbe FC and Random Curiosity FC at a canter to get here, and under the watchful eye of former Honduran national defender turned head coach Mario Velasco, they have developed a classically-balanced 3-5-2 formation as their main weapon. S$22.9 million mega-transfer Naji Hatoum would be checked by Salah Kamel
on Grilled's right wing, with Cyril Künzler
withheld out of tactical considerations. Angolan star forward João Infante Amanajás, who struck 22 goals last season after arriving for S$15 million, was however projected to be a huge match-up worry for the Birds, with neither Webb nor Panigrahi considered adequate against his package of abilities.
It turned out that Grilled need not have troubled themselves overly, however, as they immediately effected superiority in midfield. The EV might boast playmakers the reputation of Yeoh Cheng Lai, but the measure of the Birds' depth in that department, was the likes of Muthyala and Chu - easy starters for almost any club in the country - not making the starting lineup. New Dutch signing Kalle ter Berg
appeared to have beaten them out for the coveted fulcrum role, and indeed lent the team as a whole a defensive assurance that had sometimes been lacking.
Grilled would have to go at it for quite a lot of times before tasting success, with their first shot on target being a thirty-yarder from Bilal Mohammad Harun
after 13 minutes, that appeared more to check Rizvi Younes out than anything. The EV's former Pakistani youth international goalie would have more work to do in the 19th minute, as Chan Ze Han
predicted Salah Kamel
's cross better than anybody else, only to put in a substandard chip that appeared to be going out. It would however be probably-unwisely kept in by Giovanni Fiorilli over concerns about a deflection, and the Italian captain would have been massively relieved, to watch Bernie Egan
doff it tamely right into Younes' chest.
There was a sense that a goal had to be coming, and Bilal would have the honour of the first one of Grilled's S-League return. Many had doubted record signing Heng Dong Chu
's contribution to the side, but the manner in which he first shrugged off Yuriy Benko, and then simply overran Lars Smalbil, was a sight to behold. Several eager targets offered themselves up in The EV's penalty area, and the relatively-low cross would be firmly met by Bilal's diving header for a reply-worthy opener.
2-0 was next, as Chan Ze Han
advanced with his usual infuriatingly-basic and yet effective dribble, to slot it in accurately at the near bottom corner. Now, the visitors were hardly without teeth themselves, and Naji Hatoum showed his undeniable quality, by feinting past Kamal to assist Alois Štajer with an incredible through ball. The Birds would finish the half two goals up nevertheless, as Bhavya Panigrahi
abandoned his defensive post to become a very useful outflanking extra man on the warpath - not that many in the crowd minded at all.
The second half began slowly, with Grilled hogging the ball as The EV attempted to manage risk by banking on counters. This didn't go very well for either team, but in the end, it was the visitors who had the obligation to try and change the status quo. Amidst this, Eren Serpin
made his first real substitutions at The Cooking Pout - a double sub of Yuta Nakakita
and Cyril Künzler
on in the 60th minute, for Panigrahi and Kamel. Evidently, Serpin was rather confident of Künzler being able to keep up with Hatoum for half an hour.
Good action remained quite hard to come by, as The EV demonstrated remarkable patience in pressing their case; this gave Grilled too much time on the ball. Kalle ter Berg
would receive the only yellow card of the match, for a poorly-timed sliding challenger into Chng Puay Leng, though many in the stands didn't think ill of him for it. The Birds would satisfy themselves with creating a succession of half-chances, the pick of which might be Egan's urgent curler that Younes got to in the 70th minute, and another ferocious Bilal header - though from far too great a distance to pose a real threat - nine minutes on.
The game was winding down to a peaceful end, when it suddenly came alive - Naji Hatoum, who could never have been described as lazy, sparked off an all-out offensive move by The EV with five minutes left. There was surely no time to be dallying about any longer, and although many of the Grilled players probably knew this was coming, they had no good answer to Hatoum's sheer determination. The Lebanese winger skipped past the last man with a crisp one-two off Amanajás, and lobbed Massoud Dob
beautifully, hardly breaking stride.
The visiting fans rose to their feet at the prospect of a comeback, but would only be greeted by disappointment here. Grilled Birds had some strong personalities of their own, and Chan Ze Han
's name must have come up very early, whenever this description had been raised. A Birds talisman at just 26, and likely well before that to many, Chan sought a direct response to Hatoum's thrown gauntlet - and found it with a similarly-incisive dismantling of The EV's backline, for his second goal of the match.
There would even be time for one more, as Yuta Nakakita
profited off a superb dash from Heng Dong Chu
, as The EV desperately sought to salvage a point. Kalki Parvathaneni
then entered for Vikram Mudaliar
to get another appearance on his tenure clock, as a beaming Eren Serpin
positioned himself to clap his men off the pitch.