Kalleing It In
Grilled Birds got their first-ever S-League title defense off to a roaring start, as they shut previous champions Sarcastic Fringeheads out at The Cooking Pot - and stayed perched atop the S-League table.
Few could have missed the outsized significance of this fixture, what with Fringeheads being the other competitors within eleven points by the end of last season, and analysts were already touting statistical models suggesting its influence on the championship. The balance of pressure had to be on the Birds to make use of their home advantage, despite that, with it being widely acknowledged that a point would favour the visitors far more.
There would be some new faces lineup-wise, though Fringeheads kept to the counterattacking 5-4-1 that had served them so well, in their last visit; Finn Karlsson was given the nod ahead of Ryan Kerr in the all-important lone striker's role, with Bashar Muntazir debuting at midfield as expected, and German veteran Mladen Milostić at right wing. Thai defender Huang Jianming would be started in defence, but has yet to fully convince, according to pundits following his half-season with Fringeheads thus far.
One familiar face in an unfamiliar kit would be present, with Wu Jinglong
having marched out in Grilled colours, following his headline-grabbing post-season switch. Heng Dong Chu
taking up a position on the other flank suggested that the Birds were seeking to adapt, though, and with Bernie Egan
and Moey Xin Seng
fanning notably wider than usual, there could be little doubt that Eren Serpin
was aiming to diversify Grilled's attack.
Still, it should really have been the visitors to take the lead, as they tore into Grilled's lines at the first opportunity, with a commendable hunger. This was the pride of a club that had won at least one national title for the four campaigns leading into Grilled's sweep, and they hadn't achieved that by waiting for chances to fall into their lap. Zaki Taleb floated it high into the box after being forced to dribble out, and David Koppensteiner's header would meet Mateja Jeftić
's outstretched forearm in midair, slightly but clearly.
The Dutch defender's pleas to referee Flavio Crema would be rendered ineffectual by VAR, and up stepped Vincent Chan in just the second minute, to put Fringeheads ahead. There was nothing at all wrong about Chan's textbook take... only that Massoud Dob
had read it perfectly, and managed to get a strong hand to the goalbound grounder. If the fans were ecstatic at the save, there would be no time for Grilled's players to congratulate their goalkeeper yet, as Chu Xin Lee
barely managed to nick the loose ball away from an onrushing Karlsson. The frenzied sequence would eventually stop on Kalle ter Berg
's vicious takedown of David Koppensteiner, but this would be too far out for a realistic free-kick attempt.
A yellow card was probably a fair price to pay for allowing the Birds to regroup here, and they would restart the match in far more assured fashion. Their initial rush not having borne fruit, Fringeheads would revert to a cautious approach, with Huang quite obviously following Chan Ze Han
whereever he went. Overall, the Birds seemed to be content with playing the percentages with crosses, which brought arresting headed near-misses from Heng and Moey in the 10th and 18th minutes respectively.
Grilled would hardly have it all their way, though, and Fringeheads were successful in wrangling a free-kick a few minutes later, on which Jeftić demonstrated some fine defensive instincts. Ironically, the visitors would get beaten at their own game, after Huang broke into the Grilled penalty area on a rare extended possession. The resulting corner would be cleared generously for Heng Dong Chu
to sweep down the left essentially unopposed, and by the time Răzvan Patca arrived, Heng had only to deal the obvious pass, for Kalle ter Berg
to find Radu Pandelescu's back post.
Fringeheads immediately mustered an attempted response through Mladen Milostić, but the scoreline would remain one-nil at half-time, probably a fair reflection of the proceedings. Their iron discipline would extend well into the second half, with new head coach Jorge Vicente Zegers apparently of the opinion that they could afford to wait for the Birds to open themselves up. Unfortunately, Grilled had learnt how not to overcommit too, and with the focus now placed on wing development, the mistakes that occurred were not all that directly punishable.
It would instead be Fringeheads who were pressed into action, after Ter Berg scored a second goal in the 73rd minute. Heng Dong Chu
had once more beaten his immediate man on the left, and while the cross came in at an awkward height, the Dutchman would do it justice with a flying kick worthy of a mixed martial arts ring.
That was enough for Serpin to withdraw both Heng and Wu Jinglong
to help protect the lead, and if Wu hadn't been particularly impressive on his first match against his old club, he did well enough to perhaps infuse their fans with some slight regret at letting him go. In came Kalki Parvathaneni
and Bilal Mohammad Harun
, to which Zegers made a double substitute of his own: Ryan Kerr on for Milostić, and Vincent Chan sacrificed to fit Heine Andreassen as a second striker.
That came entirely too late for Fringeheads, though, and arguably exposed their now-thinner defence against the Birds' fresh newcomers. While Kalki had very likely been briefed to hold the fort, it could not be neglected that he remained one of the country's fastest and most devastating runners. With Huang still doggedly tracking Chan, there would be no help on hand as Kalki took on and sent Mladen Jurkota on holiday from the right, and the Grilled Number Ten would follow it up with a powerful finish back across Pandelescu for 3-0.
This was an unexpected bonus for Serpin, who was emboldened to spend his last sub on Gilbert Webb
, taking Mateja Jeftić
off. Fringeheads would try - and fail - to earn a consolation, with Zaki Taleb's 85th minute breakthrough spluttering out, and they would instead have to survive Kalle ter Berg
's bid for a hat-trick. Chu and Kalki would plug hard for a fourth goal in injury time, but Crema blew for time before things could really get interesting.