Revenge Slowly Cooked
Taleb Doubles Up
It had to end one day, and one could not deny that there were worse endings than against Sarcastic Fringeheads - in terms of gravity, if not Grilled's title ambitions. At stake here was not only the Birds' all-time unbeaten record, but also what was very likely their first S-League title, if only they could deal with the visitors - as they memorably did in the Singapore Cup semifinals. Alas, the day would be the Fringeheads', as they reprised the soak-and-strike strategy that had served them so well last season.
admitted that the possibility had no eluded him, but it was not as if there were all that many realistic choices open to him; with Massoud Dob
injured, Manuel Vadalà
would have to start for one, and notwithstanding the many assurances that the head coach had generously put forth on his behalf, it was hard to be sure that the Italian backup was up to it. Otherwise, cup hero Salah Kamel
was notably suspended, but it was not as if this affected Grilled's centre-heavy gameplan. The big question was whether Cyril Künzler
and Heng Dong Chu
would be introduced for width, but Serpin - not unreasonably - kept to what had taken the clubs to such heights for this season.
All eyes were thus on defending champions Sarcastic Fringeheads, whom the Birds had already taken the measure of twice already this term. Indeed, the way that they lined up was an even more conservative tweak of the 5-3-2 that had seen them lose 1-3 at their own ground, while a more expansive 3-5-2 had been memorably beaten 4-2 in the cup. Team captain Ryan Kerr would be their only front man here, as they went for David Koppensteiner heading a grim midfield line of four, with orders to protect their backline come what may.
Well, it was not as if such a challenge had not been thrown at Grilled's door often enough, though it has to be said that they could well be effective. Of course, ceding the initiative to a confident Birds XI had to be a gamble at the best of times, and so the ninety-two thousand gathered at The Cooking Pot awaited the answer: who would turn up today?
As it happened, the Birds' defence had probably been bailed out by their other gifts far too frequently, and it showed. Grilled were far, far too pumped up at all but securing the title on their home ground, and it was evident that they were hardly bothering about securing their territory against what seemed like an isolated Kerr. The attacking press was on from the get-go, but would be turned on Grilled themselves, once Moey Xin Seng
drove his effort across goal to no-one in particular, three minutes in.
Former Bosnian international Mladen Jurkota collected the loose ball smartly, and thence began Fringeheads' lethal counterstrike. It appeared innocuous enough as Jurkota tapped the ball up the left, but an incredible long pass - coupled by Ryan Kerr sneakily giving Bhavya Panigrahi
the slip - meant that the Scotsman was tearing down towards Vadalà at double-quick time. Gilbert Webb
did what he could, but that left Vincent Chan to break in behind him, and there was no hesitation as Kerr bent the needed assist to his feet.
It was thus one-nil to Fringeheads, though it was difficult to say whether the match would have developed all that differently, had they not scored. Grilled would carry on searching for their goal, if perhaps a bit more carefully, and after a few more minutes, one could hardly decipher that the red-clad Fringeheads were the ones in front. It was all they could do to stand firm against this display of offensive verve, and Chu Xin Lee
's fall in the box in the 29th minute looked an excellent shout for a penalty. French referee Milan Rabet wasn't wholly convinced, and the VAR replay proved to be slightly embarassing for Chu.
This settled, there remained a lot of work for Radu Pandelescu, as he would soon be on high alert as Neeraj Muthyala
's massive rocket from all of thirty yards swerved in... only for it to flash past the far top corner. The very next minute saw Bhavya Panigrahi
stride up for a classic dipping free-kick nicely over his defensive wall, which the goalkeeper just got his fingertips to. No chances were being taken here!
Sadly for the Birds, all this industry would bring only yet more heartbreak, as they were again taken apart on the break, some five minutes before half-time. Kalki Parvathaneni
had embarked on a dribble well worthy of the week's highlight reels, in making in way inside from the right. Andrej Apatič and Vincent Chan were left flailing in his wake, the finish wasn't half bad either, but a stubborn Pandelescu got a fist to it. The Birds realized that they had forgotten to zone themselves properly again, as Ivan Borichev tore down the middle, and it would be Zaki Taleb swinging in from the right side, to do the honours this time.
This was not what the home fans were looking forward to, and the atmosphere at The Cooking Pot couldn't help but be morose over the interval. Whatever Serpin said to his players over the break, it didn't seem to change their behaviour much, but this was maybe a self-inflicted handicap - where Grilled could choose not to pursue goals over-aggressively before, they had no say in the matter now.
So continued the siege, and so came the sally forth, for a third time. The Birds risked the numbers forward in the 53rd minute, and Panigrahi swung the free-kick in cleanly enough, but there had to be a sinking feeling in most of the supporters' stomach, as Răzvan Patca rose highest to head it well away. Kerr picked it up and had only Webb and Bilal - and a whole lot of open space - before him, the Fringeheads' wingers moved first and freely, and before long Taleb would make it 3-0.
That was too much for a minority of the Birds fans, with some sections of the stadium noticeably thinning as they fought what seemed a lost cause. Grilled's pigheaded stubbornness had to finally pay off, that said, and so it did as they kept on hammering, with almost total abandon now as Serpin saw no reason to interfere. 74 minutes in, Bernie Egan
would nutmeg Chan and then lob Pandelescu with his next touch, which if late remained a veritable beauty of a goal.
Tempers ran hot after Răzvan Patca bumped Moey Xin Seng
to the ground on Grilled's next possession, but whether the experienced Romanian did it to buy his team more time to reorganize, none could tell. If that was the intent, it was probably justified, though Gilbert Webb
did still test Pandelescu somewhat. Fringeheads gaffer Satrap Kabiri had seen enough, and would put Chew Fu Chuan on for the final ten minutes, where his store of experience would be invaluable.
That was just about enough, and Serpin's last roll of the dice with a triple sub in the dying minutes, was not quite enough to turn it around. Vikram Mudaliar
did contribute some excellent penetration in the few minutes he was on, that came to forcing a save out of the goalkeeper, which had some questioning why he had not started this match.