One For The Ages
Salah So Right
This fourth Singapore Cup final was the closest yet, but Grilled Birds prevailed as they always have, bumping Bot Team FC after not one, not two, but a ridiculous five
equalizing goals. The worthies who had gathered at the cavernous Big Nest Arena Singapore downtown would have to agree on this afterwards, whatever their allegiance: they might never see the likes of this again, not at this stage.
Bot Team FC had of course done something like that themselves, in last week's semi-finals against Arrogancae, where they came from behind thrice before rinsing the opponents in extra time. The weight of the build-up to this final was quite unbearable at both The Cooking Pot and Kandang Harimau, then, with the clubs entering lockdown for the final few days. As to who had the upper hand - however slight - was the talk of the town, with many pointing to the Bots' incredible fortitude in the semis, their wealth of experience, and two very-nicely situated walkovers against Puh erh; detractors would however note their hitherto-concealed stamina issues with long matches, and the unavailability of Turkish winger Bahri Han, who had become one of their most important players in his couple of seasons here.
With Grilled Birds, there were never going to be many secrets. They would march out, in home green for a major cup final for the first time - three in front, then five, then two at the back, and then Massoud Dob
. There was only one change from the side that had ended Sarcastic Fringeheads' historic cup streak last week, and it was captain Moey Xin Seng
, who now cut a forlorn figure on the bench. Chu Xin Lee
would move into the centre in his stead, opening up the left wing spot for Kalki Parvathaneni
. Against this imposing lineup, the Bots would set out in a mirrored 2-5-3 - and whether this was boldness or foolhardiness, none dared venture quite yet.
Bot Team FC made just a single change from their semifinals XI too, with Cristian Romete keeping goal instead of Nicolas Jardin, perhaps a concession to worries over the Frenchman's shaky performance in their 3-5 home defeat earlier this campaign. Even seasoned Polish referee Maciej Kruk appeared to be affected by the sheer air of significance that hung over the ground - these clubs had marked the beginning and an end for now to Fringeheads' cup era, and while the Bots' trophy haul in the previous few seasons was undoubtedly superior, they were also perhaps past their peak, with no starter younger than 31 years, and old faithfuls like Kong Kian Chee and Fabio Trasferti already 37.
As they exhibited against Arrogancae, this was a poor bit of trivia to place one's hopes on, and the final would explode into action immediately upon Chan Ze Han
's kick-off. For good reason too - both clubs had probably been analyzed to shreds, and the conclusion under these circumstances would have to be that there was absolutely no place to hide. This was going to be an all-out sluggers' battle with nothing held back, and each team strove to destroy the other's will to resist with attacking pressure of an overwhelming intensity. The official commentator would soon give voice to the unsaid observation - that whichever managed to obtain a two-goal lead, would probably go on to take it in a landslide.
That opening goal was then of utmost importance, as one really didn't want to be playing catch-up in this atmosphere, as with penalties. Truly, it was entirely up in the air as to which team would manage it, as midfielders raced to shore up purposely-understaffed defences; a few warning shots notwithstanding, Kalki Parvathaneni
would set the first big chance into motion, as he skipped past Trasferti in the ninth minute, though the popular Italian would likely have managed to recover were he several years younger. With Vikram Mudaliar
luring David Anžel aside, Kalki made the pass to Chan Ze Han
automatically, but the acting skipper would have his dream scenario go bad, as he swiped it inches wide of the post.
What Chan couldn't manage, Oleg Konaev would, as Bot Team FC made their move about five minutes later. A couple of to-and-fros with Anthony Jarvis had allowed him to edge his way into Grilled's penalty area, and his early backheeled touch on the third occasion would leave Kalle ter Berg
a step behind. The Dutchman guessed wrongly as Konaev cannily turned to his weaker side, which bought him enough time to boom it straight past Massoud Dob
The Bot Team FC supporters were thrilled by that flash of class, and it looked momentarily very dangerous for the Birds... but not for too long. Good attacks were, after all, not going to be too hard to find, and Bernie Egan
saw plenty of room on the right receiving the ball on the halfway line, and he encouraged Salah Kamal to chase it with a lob at the corner flag. There seemed little enough concern for the Bots, with Kamal apparently isolated and facing Nico Lopo down, only for the Palestine to juke Lopo with a seldom-seen elastico trick, advance right down the touchline, and smash it across goal and in off the far post with his left peg.
It dawned on the over 125,000 gathered that they might be witnessing something extremely special today, as the exchanges only grew in spectacle and sophistication. Pelowski probed at the edges, Bilal Mohammad Harun
drove him off, Neeraj Muthyala
tried to find a forward pass, Paride Bolognini shut his angles down, so on and on it went. It would be the Bots who were the marginally more convincing, however, and Kong Kian Chee's incomparable experience had him create the slightest of channels for Kwek Puay Lai, in the 33rd minute. It was enough, as Kwek ignored the encroaching Gilbert Webb
, to keep his finish on target. 2-1.
This would shortly be followed by a nasty tackle by Salah Kamel
on former national star Phang Lai Chuan, who had just reached his double century of goals, and who had often professed dissatisfaction at not having found the net in winning a Singapore Cup final, though he did score against Fringeheads in a 2-4 loss, three seasons ago. Perhaps it was just not fated to be, as a grim-faced Leandro Andrade insisted that he come off, despite Phang's protestations that he could continue. That might have saved Kamel a red, as Niels Grevenbrück took over as the Bots' target man.
The pace was slowing just a little as half-time approached, but suddenly picked up again; with three minutes to go, Chan Ze Han
would embark in one of his calculated slow dribbles down the middle, with the intent of allowing teammates to make space for themselves. This didn't happen, as the opponents wouldn't take the bait, but Chan didn't stop either, and wound up making his way to the penalty arc. Now, Chan was not exactly known for his distance shooting, and his jog didn't suggest that much momentum could be put into a strike - but Cristian Romete was never about to save this scorcher, once it left Chan's boot.
The next few minutes passed in a blur, as goal after goal happened; Bot Team FC went for broke from their restart, and were duly rewarded with a straightforward drive down the middle that would not have been out of place amongst Grilled's own finest. Pelowski scuffed his effort off Webb, but that was probably for their best, as Paride Bolognini instantly powered it low past the wrongfooted Massoud Dob
. Grilled were no slouches for their third response either, and Kalki Parvathaneni
justified his selection twice over, as he took on - and beat - David Anžel despite giving up about five yards in that race over twenty. Romete made himself big, but Kalki wasn't about to fail on a one-on-one here.
That wouldn't even be it, as Bot Team FC wrested the lead back, right on the cusp of half-time. They seemed to have settled for the tie, by playing it amongst themselves just inside Grilled's half, but were actually just waiting for the clock to admit just one further attack. Oleg Konaev seized the initiative, taking it off Kwek Puay Lai, and his judgment proved impeccable as the Bots drove successfully against a vulnerable Kalle ter Berg
from the right. Grevenbrück made himself useful in tying a couple of Grilled players up, and Konaev would latch onto Trasferti's excellent return, to an eruption from the Bot Team FC side of the stadium.
It was just one goal, but the chasm it represented would grow over the course of the second half, as Bot Team FC looked canny enough to tempt Grilled out with it; one more, then, would surely be the killer. Not that the Birds had much choice but to go for it, and Kalle ter Berg
tried for redemption in the 50th minute with a lashed volley, that wasn't quite that far off. An uneasy stalemate resumed, until ten minutes later, when Niels Grevenbrück seemed poised to shove the dagger in, as he waited - free at the far post - awaiting Kwek's exquisite lob.
All eyes were on Massoud Dob
now, and he chose to rely on his reflexes staying on the line, which turned out to be good enough. Dob punched the diving header clear, and was probably lucky it went to Gilbert Webb
, instead of the lurking Konaev. More good fortune would follow for Grilled, as they completed several long forward passes in succession, a sequence that ended with Salah Kamel
again embarassing Nico Lopo with his spartan yet deadly-functional close-in footwork, before stroking a fourth equalizer past Cristian Romete.
That was the green section's cue to get up on their feet, and what had been to some extent a controlled match, would soon give way to a raw passion for the game. The formations, so meticulously maintained through the first half despite the overarching attacking bias, would break down into schoolyard-style individual battles all over, with the duelists rotating everywhere. Grilled probably were the worse for this change of tack, but it did also bring them a potential opening in the 74th, as Chan Ze Han
outrageously feinted his way past Paride Bolognini. Romete wasn't about to fall for it too, though, and the Bots' goalkeeper got to the ball with seconds to spare.
Bot Team FC head coach Leandro Andrade would make his planned substitutions at the next stoppage, with veteran wingers Fabio Trasferti and Kong Kian Chee retired for Junior Kumi and Alessandro Stefano Argentesi respectively, in an overt bid to claim a winner from the added energy out wide. Eren Serpin
, who had been pacing the sidelines since the first minute, seemed to consider a response, before letting it go. As it was, Andrade's gambit looked like it had paid off when the newly-arrived Argentesi ripped Grilled up the left, only for Anthony Jarvis to relive Chan's earlier miss, by slicing it marginally wide.
One could hardly breathe as the end of regular time loomed, and both competitors' commitment towards offence began to quiver; the wingers would gradually withdraw with an eye towards a lethal counter, which almost happened for Grilled in the 82nd minute. With many players out of position, centreback Gilbert Webb
somehow found himself furthest in front for Grilled, and even dribbling at Romete, after a chaotic midfield melee. Alas, Webb would come to regret not shooting when he had the chance, instead going down far too easily after a poor final touch took the ball slightly too far ahead.
So it would be extra time once more, something that the Bots were not unfamiliar with. Certainly, few present could have forgotten how they had absolutely massacred Arrogancae in this period last week, scoring four goals in the space of five minutes against all doubts about their fitness levels. Then again, Grilled benefitted too from being allowed to regroup and replan during the break, from how they presented themselves afterwards.
Similar drama would happen again, beginning with Anthony Jarvis - who had scored two of those extra time goals against Arrogancae. Ten minutes in, Argentesi would smoke a weary Salah Kamel
by the sidelines, which presented him with a selection of eager midfielders sprinting in from deep. Argentesi would opt to hold it up abit by poking it on to Pelowski, who would in turn rake it square... behind Kwek but perfectly to Jarvis, who rolled it oh so smoothly, just out of Massoud Dob
's grasp, and into the net.
With this, Bot Team FC had taken the lead for a fifth time, surely more than what could be expected, to win a cup final? Not so, it seemed. Grilled refused to go gently into the good night, and given that they were the ones doing most of the running, why should they? Still, the Bots had evidently had enough and gone into full defensive mode, something that far inferior sides have held the Birds off for twenty minutes with; this was a race against time, and a thing about races is that Kalki Parvathaneni
doesn't often lose them - as he proved with a magnificent curler to the top corner, out of nowhere.
Even the greatest of teams would have to stagger a little mentally, after being caught up with five times, and thus was it for the Bots. Grilled were back to operating almost wholly on instinct now, and Serpin was definitely not about to stop them - nor could he have. The payoff came just two minutes later, as Chu Xin Lee
started running in the channel from the left, and ran, and somehow kept on running - until it was just David Anžel trying desperately to keep to the inside, and Romete advancing to meet him. Chu fired, the ball slipped through the dead space between Romete's planted foot and his arm, and the Birds were in front for the first time - in the 108th minute.
was transfixed, as were a number of players and watchers, before the stadium exploded into a cacophony of sound and light. At this, the recovered Grilled head coach made his first sub, putting the bursting-at-the-seams Moey Xin Seng
on for Bilal with orders to protect the lead come what may. Moey definitely didn't need to be told twice, as he went at opponents with fanatic abandon. And, as it turned out, Grilled did indeed have more gas in the tank by this point, which helped them to draw the game out to two drawn-out substitutions introducing Cyril Künzler
and Bhavya Panigrahi
, with Maciej Kruk blowing for time immediately after the second of those.