Like A Machine
Grilled Birds' last competitive match before their second consecutive Singapore Cup final might have ended in a comprehensive 5-1 victory, but it wasn't without its costs - and none knew that more deeply than 35 year-old midfield general Neeraj Muthyala
, whose participation in said final is all but over, after he tore his left calf muscle early into this contest.
Again battling on two fronts - and although certainly a nice problem to have - the Birds were caught between preserving their key personnel and preserving their S-League lead; still, despite Bernie Egan
remaining on the treatment table, Grilled were not yet short on options, with players the quality of Kalki Parvathaneni
, Heng Dong Chu
, Chu Xin Lee
and Cyril Künzler
only making the bench. It wouldn't take too long for at least one of them to be called to serve, though...
This was hardly wholly unexpected either, with the ever-steadfast Bot Team FC being the visitors today, and while the Bots have lost their latest four meetings with Grilled - including, of course, last season's epic Singapore Cup final - they had made the Birds work to the bone in each of those games. Their record since then has admittedly not been up to their own exacting standards, with them having claimed just six points from six rounds, with Villains F.C. having just dealt them a humiliating blow in the Ruby Challenger Cup.
Leandro Andrade's high point of the season, then, was probably the club managing to sell once-in-a-generation teenaged prodigy Hilal Husayn to polentoni fc for some S$20.3 million a few weeks back, although this could of course also be read in a less-positive manner. Andrade not having reinvested any of the proceeds yet wouldn't exactly help in this interpretation, and while they might eventually do so, it wouldn't be in time for today.
Then again, it wasn't as if the visitors were inadequate either, on paper at least; they retained some of the best individual talent in the top flight, and while local internationals Phang Lai Chuan and Kwek Puay Lai might be getting on slightly in years, they certainly fell in that category. Serpin had insisted as much in his pre-game comments, and this title was lived up to by Kwek in the 14th minute, as he slalomed past two defenders to force an improvised block off Massoud Dob
Grilled's fortunes then seemingly took a dive, as they were struck by a pair of reversals in quick succession. First, Neeraj Muthyala
would be unable to get up after overextending his left leg on an attempted tackle, which would have Chu Xin Lee
enter the fray somewhat earlier than Serpin had intended. A little later in the 24th minute, Wu Jinglong
and Gilbert Webb
would be unable to hold Bahri Han on the left, and the Turkish winger's fiercely-struck cross would be converted by a no less aggressive flying header by Paride Bolognini.
The Birds weren't exactly unused to such setbacks by now, granted, and it changed little for them tactically, as far as could be made out. Attack remained their priority, as it should be on home ground, and they were frankly more than capable of worrying Slovenian ex-international centreback David Anžel. Vikram Mudaliar
had been his key concern throughout the first half-hour, and the Number Nine's movement would finally be too much for him to track in the 31st minute. A series of first-time passes would give Mudaliar just enough of a gap to work with there, and he made the most of it to hammer the ball past Nicolas Jardin there.
The rest of the half would yield no further goals, despite efforts from Fabio Trasferti and then Chan Ze Han
bringing large sections of the gallery up on their feet, with the goalkeepers probably having been the top performers on both teams. Serpin wouldn't shrink from retooling when needed, and an underperforming Wu Jinglong
would make way for Heng Dong Chu
after the interval, with Heng thus playing a seldom-seen inverted winger role on the right side.
Heng's introduction made all the impact that his head coach had hoped for, and perhaps more, as Grilled were 3-1 up within nine minutes of the restart. His explosiveness had the Bots' shape drawn over to their left before they knew it, which allowed Chu and Kalle ter Berg
free reign on the opposite flank in the 48th minute, leading to the Dutchman scoring. Not in the least discouraged by the attention he was receiving, Heng would lead the charge personally in the 54th minute, and it would then be Gilbert Webb
who would see a lucky deflection take it between Jardin's legs.
Bot Team FC were not beaten yet, but they were clearly in trouble, and for a time it was hard to see where they could find the impetus to push for the the two goals they now needed. The ability of their midfield remained unquestioned, for all that, and they would gradually press within shooting range around the 66th minute. Their travelling fans were screaming for Paride Bolognini to take a punt then, and the Italian obliged. The howitzer could well have gone in too, but Massoud Dob
again had something to say about that.
The collapse then arrived for the visitors, as the Birds stepped it up, and Kalle ter Berg
stretched his Golden Boot lead to two goals over Bernie Egan
, with a very clean finish in the 74th minute. Moey Xin Seng
then cleaned it up, with a neat header three minutes later.