The weight of destiny hung heavily over Benfleet Branch's Woodside Park this day, with both participating clubs steeping the Singapore Cup semi-finals in their history; for Grilled Birds, it was their 400th cup match, their 1250th competitive match overall, and their penultimate obstacle to a fourth national cup - which would make them first amongst all extant Singaporean clubs. Sarcastic Fringeheads had however won the last three editions - matching and then breaking Grilled's own repeat - for a record cup winning streak of 31 games, included of which was of course last season's 4-0 whipping of the Birds at the very same semi-finals stage.
From all this, it was hardly untoward that the football association had arranged for some twenty thousand additional temporary seats to be installed at the already-gargantuan Woodside Park, to meet ticket demand. Even then, crowds of unfortunates remained milling outside the gates long before kick-off, in the hopes of a late scalp. Not many achieved that, and would have to disperse to the neighbouring pubs and bars as the moment approached.
Grilled Birds had a 3-1 away victory against Fringeheads under their belt already, which did plenty for pundits' estimation of their chances, which were however still split about evenly at the bookmakers. The defending holders' Satrap Kabiri was nothing if not adaptable, and he would eschew his previous counterattacking tack, for a honest 3-5-2. Kabiri kept faith with most of his selection, largely redeploying them, with only Vincent Chan unused outright. Chew Fu Chuan would be pressed into a more influential midfield role, while Andrej Apatič was set to follow Chan Ze Han
, and no other - surely a reflection of his status in the game.
How Sarcastic Fringeheads' new arrangement would fare remained unknown, although this setup certainly resembled the 4-4-2 that had humbled Grilled so severely last season, if with a further tilt towards possession. It was however again the Birds who began imposing themselves, despite all of Kabiri's analysis, and they would begin to force the Fringehead players to move to their tune, through disciplined yet snappy short passing - a sight to behold given their opponents' calibre.
The match was certainly not panning out to be the staid, cagey stalemate that some commentators had expected, with Fringeheads sticking to the plan and not retreating into a counterattacking posture; whether they should have will be a question for the historians to answer, as they had definitely lost the initiative. There was no stopping Grilled creating chances, and Mladen Jurkota was caught napping when Bernie Egan
moved for Moey Xin Seng
's warningless through ball in the 17th minute, with essentially telepathic understanding. Jurkota did manage one last shoulder-barge in an effort to throw the shot off, but no dice as Egan withstood it, then drilled it low and right by Radu Pandelescu's outstretched leg.
That opener boosted the Grilled supporters to no end, and their energy transferred over to the players on the pitch, who were outworking their Fringeheads counterparts by some margin. Having put out a wingless midfield again, the Birds stuck stubbornly to attacking Pandelescu's goal via the most direct route - but given that their opponents had no permanent answer, why not? Egan would crash another off the woodwork 35 minutes in, but that was more than enough for Chan Ze Han
, who eluded Apatič for just long enough to shove a second goal over the line.
The celebrations redoubled, but would soon fade, as Fringeheads found a way back almost immediately. They had yet to test Massoud Dob
, having been near-exclusively on the defensive, but would only require one opportunity to score. While Kalle ter Berg
had been impressive on the attacking front, he would be rather less convincing after being pressed into defence, and Finn Karlsson would find him out with some magical sleight-of-foot into a nutmeg. There was no other Grilled player close enough to slow the Swede, who would then fool Massoud Dob
too, before calmly depositing the ball in.
This demonstration restored Fringeheads fully, and while they would have to weather forthcoming strikes by Gilbert Webb
and Moey Xin Seng
, it was enough to inspire them to equalize by half-time. David Koppensteiner slowly brought the ball up the left for a distance, and a sudden change of pace combined with an inch-perfect exchange with Ryan Kerr, allowed him to get through and score in the 42nd minute.
That made the reset, and all the buzz through the fifteen-minute break was towards Sarcastic Fringeheads riding the momentum to a big comeback. There were glimpses of that, actually, but it wouldn't be long before the previous status quo was resumed. Kalle ter Berg
was for one doubly-set on making up for his previous embarassment, and a surging run up the left would blow by three opponents, before an ambitious curler that wasn't all that far away.
Fringeheads were perhaps beginning to get more conservative too, as dragging the Birds to extra time, and perhaps even penalties, surely didn't look half bad considering the circumstances. Satrap Kabiri seemingly remained concerned though, and he would have Hans Heinrich Merkatz warming up, just in case. The Fringeheads gaffer's worst fears would shortly be realized, as Grilled again carved his central defence open in the 68th minute after excellent switching between passes and direct running, and Bernie Egan
raced side-by-side with David Koppensteiner before applying the finishing touch for 3-2.
There was no hiding that Grilled had regained the upper hand with that goal, and the two-goal lead would be restored just a few minutes later. It was Vikram Mudaliar
's turn, as he joined in with Chan Ze Han
on hassling Răzvan Patca, at just the right instant. Patca had an obvious out in a backpass to his goalkeeper, but visibly blanched when, for some reason, he didn't put enough on the ball. It looked like even odds between Mudaliar and Pandelescu as to who would reach it first, and it was Grilled's Number Nine who displayed that extra shade of killer instinct, in covering those last few yards with a glorious slide, to poke the ball home.
The Birds were bouncing again, especially after they survived Patca's desperate attempt to atone, with Dob keeping his head to make the save. Kabiri's in-the-works sub of Merkatz on for Chew Fu Chuan would go through, but that barely helped as Grilled piled it on. Indeed, Grilled were probably unlucky not to add to their tally, with Neeraj Muthyala
and Salah Kamel
sorely testing Pandelescu in the following minutes.
All that action also saw Moey Xin Seng
pick up a yellow card for his overexuberant takedown of Koppensteiner, but from the looks of it, the Grilled captain regretted nothing. Kabiri looked just about out of ideas, and his last roll of the dice would be Ramsès Prats, who came on for exhausted Scots skipper Ryan Kerr. Sadly for Fringeheads, this was as far as it would go for their current cup legend, as Grilled saw the remaining minutes out without too much difficulty.