Standing On The Summit
Haunting At Harimau
Grilled Birds ascended to the top of the S-League table, as they upset two-time S-League winners Bot Team FC 5-3, at their Kandang Harimau. This was something that they had not managed during their brief stay here three seasons back, but given that the Birds had just eliminated them from the Singapore Cup in their just-completed campaign, such an outcome was perhaps not entirely unimaginable.
Both Eren Serpin
and Bot Team FC gaffer Leandro Andrade would keep faith with the 2-5-3 that had been on display in that cup extravaganza, with minor personnel adjustments for both parties. Cyril Künzler
was injured, of course, but Kalki and Mudaliar would also make way for new guys Kalle ter Berg
and Salah Kamel
, in Grilled's starting XI. It was the same story for the Bots' Spanish veteran Óscar Antonio Cepeda, who wouldn't recover from a pulled groin muscle in time. Cepeda would have his spot taken by former Slovenian youth international David Anžel, while South African national fringe striker Carl Pelowski appears to have claimed local legend Stewart Russell's place. There would be some additional minor shuffling about, but nothing too exceptional.
Andrade had emphasized that Bot Team FC were out for the win, after losing 2-5 to title rivals Sarcastic Fringeheads last Sunday, though Phang Lai Chuan's quality brace then did salvage some belief. The bookmakers certainly thought so as well, as they listed the Bots as clear favourites. The only strike against them was perhaps that their usual tack of intelligent defense from midfield had not been as effective, as evidenced by the teams' last meeting, but Bot Team FC haven't been regarded as one of the top three title contenders without justification.
The story wouldn't unfold as the experts speculated, however, after Grilled Birds weathered a commanding show by the Bots in the first ten minutes or thereabouts. Kwek Puay Lai and partners kept possession extremely well, but found actually threatening Dob's goal a tricky task, without actual commitment; their first real attempt to put numbers forward would prove their undoing, as Gilbert Webb
sought Vikram Mudaliar
out, first-time off a contested pass. Fabio Trasferti had the unenviable task of getting between both Mudaliar and Chan Ze Han
, and Mudaliar was too good not to execute the usual two-on-one playbook, to allow Chan to open.
That goal against the run of play hit the crowd's enthusiasm fairly hard, but they would soon recover their voice, as the calm figure of Oleg Konaev restored order to their ranks. Unfortunately, this would not change their underlying problems, as it slowly transpired that they simply didn't have enough of a technical advantage over the Birds, to be able to score on low-risk maneuvers. However, it was also clear that this Bot team wasn't built to push attacks without leaving defensive vulnerabilities, and Chu Xin Lee
would nip in from the left to slip a second goal past Nicolas Jardin, in the 26th minute.
Andrade had to have recognized that their gameplay wasn't working out, but it wasn't as if he had the reserves to effect a significant change; as such, he could only watch on as Grilled grew in confidence, and Bernie Egan
released a left-footed blash after 35 minutes, for the third. Salah Kamel
would prompt roars for a red card after his vicious aerial takedown of Kwek Puay Lai from the kick-off, but referee Magic Nagalo contented himself with a yellow, and Bilal Mohammad Harun
's uncharacteristic soft approach for 4-0 would finally silence the Kandang Harimau for some length of time.
One would have to go back into the mists of Bot Team FC's history, to discover another occasion on which they had been so embarassed on their home ground. Notably, they had won six of their seven league matches at the Kandang Harimau last season, with a very strong and dug-in Arrogancae team being the only ones able to hold them to a draw. The cameramen didn't have to search long to come up with a potpourri of emotions, ranging from despair to anger to outright disbelief, from the gallery as half-time approached.
It could not be denied that the Birds had probably gotten all the breaks too, and the balance of play would revert to the mean after the break. Moreover, Grilled had quite understandably become the ones seeking to go it safe too, with their midfield now seated rather deeper, and with Chu and Kamel operating almost as wingbacks. This hasn't been something that the Birds were particularly brilliant at, from past experience, as Chu's allowing Konaev an excuse to go down in the penalty area proved. Carl Pelowski took his time setting the ball on the spot, before delivering a textbook nigh-unsaveable penalty low to the right post.
Bot Team FC's battle would be against both Grilled and the clock, as they found the Birds only too willing to yield possession, just as long as their opponents held it an acceptable distance away from their goalmouth. This wasn't a foolproof policy, granted, and the Bots had more than enough experience and skill to make it dicey. The Birds held out until the 78th minute, when Phang Lai Chuan sold an incredible dummy, to have a pass slip through to Anthony Jarvis, who slipped it under Dob for 4-2.
Still, Grilled retained a two-goal cushion, and Eren Serpin
retained a handful of unused substitutions, to whittle those seconds away. Chu Xin Lee
took his time strolling across the field for Heng Dong Chu
to come on, soon after the latest restart, as did Bhavya Panigrahi
when he switched with Yuta Nakakita
, with just five minutes remaining. These precautions seemed sufficient as the hosts began to run out of steam, and Vikram Mudaliar
would further punish them for it, with an opportunistic interception to score in the 89th minute.
That was it, and while Phang Lai Chuan did very well to climb above a host of Grilled defenders to thump a contested header home in injury time, there was no mistaking which set of fans were happier at the result.