Down To The Count
Finish Line In Sight
Grilled Birds maintained their perch atop the S-League going into the final weekend, but it was not without its costs, as they finished today's epic against Bot Team FC with just nine men. More importantly, though, they also finished with three points and two further goals to the good, a feat that could never be taken for granted against the Bots.
The build-up would unavoidably be overshadowed by the clubs' epochal clash in the Singapore Cup final, in which Grilled memorably prevailed after having fallen behind no less than five times. This had to be enough to leave a bitter taste in even the best-natured fellows, and there was the distinct sense that the visitors were out to get their own back today. Bahri Han, who had mentioned missing out on the finals as one of his biggest regrets, would start at left wing, with Carl Pelowski omitted due to fitness issues, and Niels Grevenbrück leading the line from the right. Nicolas Jardin was back in goal, with both himself and Cristian Romete having failed to stop the Birds this season.
On Grilled's side, there were few real surprises, as Neeraj Muthyala
and Bilal Mohammad Harun
reprised their wide roles, and Salah Kamel
together with Kalle ter Berg
forming the midfield core alongside Chu Xin Lee
. Vikram Mudaliar
was again left out, as both Moey Xin Seng
and Chan Ze Han
started in the frontline.
It would soon be clear that there would be no repeat of Bot Team FC's cup advantage, as the Birds milked their home advantage at The Cooking Pot for all it was worth. The crowd of over ninety-two thousand was their twelfth man, figuratively speaking, and for all of the Bots' experience and composure, they could not help but be taken along by the Grilled-directed flow of the game. It didn't help Bot Team FC that Grilled's makeshift wingers were finding their feet very well, as evidenced by Neeraj Muthyala
's cross-pass to Bilal's forehead in the seventh minute, that required a diving save by Jardin to deny.
Poor finishing would plague Grilled in this early period, unfortunately, as they might otherwise have piled on the lead. Bilal's header would be followed closely by a Moey Xin Seng
attempt, as the hardworking Muthyala then picked his captain out, albeit with back to goal, and with David Anžel up close. That Moey managed to wrangle a credible lob in this situation was testament to his skill, though it drifted wide. Bilal then had another pot in the 21st minute from an extended free-kick sequence, but the angle was against him.
Bot Team FC were pretty obviously biding their time here, and they would raise the stakes a couple of minutes on, after they earned their own free-kick through Kwek Puay Lai's obstruction by Bhavya Panigrahi
. It wouldn't turn out as they had hoped, however, with all their advanced players well-marked, and the clearance would wind up being chased down by Chan Ze Han
, against an emptied backfield. Nico Lopo's speed might be one of his vaunted strengths, but there was nothing for it when Chan switched the ball behind him with a stunning first touch on the volley, before beating Jardin with a similarly exquisite lob to the back post.
That had to be a flash of genius worthy to kickstart any match, and so it was today. It would further be followed closely by a second goal for the Birds, as they continued piling the pressure along the centreline. Gilbert Webb
's intrepid foray initially seemed risky, but he was covered promptly by Salah Kamel
, and Webb would be entirely vindicated by being present to put the finishing touch on the move he started. 2-0.
There were next to no chances of note for the remainder of this first half, as the Bots became only yet more wary. While this allowed them to keep out a Grilled side that was understanding dialing it back somewhat, it also left them with relatively few plausible openings; the overarching idea appeared to be bringing Grevenbrück into play on the right, but that was usually easily read, and Bhavya Panigrahi
was happy enough to stay with the Italian striker for as long as it took.
would send Kalki Parvathaneni
on for Chan Ze Han
for the second half, which on the face of it was a reasonable substitution, from how hard the fresh Kalki would run. Still, it would be Bot Team FC to draw first blood, as their no-frills passing would come to fruition in the 56th minute, against a complacent Birds midfield. Nobody took responsibility as Phang Lai Chuan ran at the defence, and it was far too late when the former national star offloaded to Anthony Jarvis for the reducer.
Grilled were at least far better at hitting back than guarding, and restored their two-goal lead by the next minute. There was absolutely no wasted time from the kick-off, as Kalki glided to the goalline all but daring any to confront him; he would be caged out for a corner kick - which Panigrahi would drop right smack into the middle of the penalty area, and which Moey Xin Seng
would fight his way to, to score with a very firm classic centre-forward's header.
That would also be Panigrahi's last major contribution of the game, as Serpin made his second substitution, taking him off for Mateja Jeftić
. A third would then be forced upon Grilled Birds, as Gilbert Webb
could not continue, after getting his right knee banged up in a collision, 73 minutes in. Yuta Nakakita
was thus called upon to make his first competitive appearance for Grilled, since FC Barca Singapore some months back.
Kalki redoubled his considerable output in response, and the all-action hero first buried one into the side-netting, before finding himself getting booked for tackling Oleg Konaev messily at the other end of the pitch. Bot Team FC were not exactly short on stamina, though, and with no extra time to cater for, they seemed determined to expend it all in service of a comeback. Fabio Trasferti made one of their clearest opportunities with his brilliant through pass for Grevenbrück with ten minutes remaining, but the forward failed to do it justice.
This appeared set for a 3-1 final result - more or less fair, one had to suppose - before a sting in the tail in injury time. The Bots weren't about to leave without extracting a measure of flesh, and this they would achieve. Jarvis looked to get a last word in, and barrelled Neeraj Muthyala
off the ball, before cracking an absurdly powerful shot that Massoud Dob
barely blocked. There would be much drama as Kalki Parvathaneni
squared up to Jarvis in defence of his teammate - now writhing on the ground - but it ended with Kalki instead being dismissed, for a second yellow card.