Bowed But Ahead
It never rains but it pours, as Grilled Birds suffered a third defeat in a row - if under baking-hot temperatures of some thirty-four degrees, at the Kadang Harimau. Bot Team FC might not have had a particularly stellar season by their own standards thus far, having recorded just two wins to five defeats entering this match, but one had to suspect that they were reserving something special for the Birds.
To begin with, there was that 5-1 that Grilled had put it against them just last Sunday, but it was a different - and rather more invincible-seeming - Birds team that had come out then, without mentioning home advantage. Leandro Andrade certainly detected vulnerability as he confronted the Birds with a matching 2-5-3, with the ever-effective Phang Lai Chuan as their centrepiece in attack. Danish winger Villads Bernstein made his league debut against Grilled on the left, five days after his bumper S$15.6 million signing from French Division Three club Riviera Boolfighters.
As with the cup final and last week, all involved appeared to instinctively recognize that whoever drew ahead by more than one would likely be uncatchable, and there was no pretense at conservatism here - to the delight of the neutrals. The attendance of just over forty thousand wasn't great, perhaps doubly affected by the Birds supporters' cup hangover and Bot Team FC's indifferent fortunes, though those that made it, definitely made their presence audibly known.
Goals were undeniably in the making today, and the first would take barely three minutes, and was a sign of the individual shooting prowess of Kwek Puay Lai. The much-capped former national playmaker was casually moving the ball across from the right, with Kalle ter Berg
watching closely, when he suddenly pulled to the outside and unleashed a far harder drive than he had any right to, without a run-up. Massoud Dob
threw himself at it, but not enough.
Given that the Bots had likewise gone ahead before getting slammed around last week, their supporters were slightly more circumspect than they might otherwise had been, but the stadium would nevertheless reverberate for some minutes after the opener. As they might have feared, Grilled were shifting the ball about meaningfully, and Bilal Mohammad Harun
would break through to equalize in the 11th minute.
The pace of the game began to pick up in earnest after that, as the teams were convinced that defence was not the correct response here. Bernstein's unknown quantity would serve him well against Chu Xin Lee
on their next big push, as the debutant blazed past, before assisting David Anžel with an unorthodox waist-high cross. Not to be outdone, Vikram Mudaliar
then joined in on the scoring, as the match seemed to have developed into disjointed turn-taking.
The equilibrium would then be irrevocably broken, sadly for the Birds, as Bot Team FC found that little extra. Before two more minutes had gone by, first Carl Pelowski and then Phang Lai Chuan had put it past Dob, as Grilled's defenders were too often nowhere to be found. Eren Serpin
, who had recently endured some criticism for preferring Mateja Jeftić
over Gilbert Webb
despite several unconvincing stints, seemed lost in thought as he contemplated his team's latest ruin.
The remaining thirty minutes of the first half was uneventful in comparison, but not due to any lack of wanting from either side, instead more of a weight to the Grilled players' steps. Serpin would pull the trigger and swap Webb in for Jeftić at the beginning of the second half, but this didn't help matters, as rubbed in by Paride Bolognini finding the bottom left corner almost immediately, for 5-2.
Grilled were just trying to limit the damage now - not something that they have been particularly good at - as the Bots could pick their battles at leisure. Chan Ze Han
had some classy moments, but the tide was indubitably behind the home team. They were doing especially well on the flanks, and after Bahri Han had nearly made another for Bolognini, Bernstein would slip in for his debut goal.
Chan was one of the few Grilled stars who would hold their head up high after all had been said and done, and with Kalki Parvathaneni
finally lighting a fire with his pace down the left, Chan seemed to be in... only to misread Kalki's intentions at the last. Not only that, Salah Kamel
would be booked trying to salvage the situation, which will see him suspended for next Sunday.
Pelowski could have piled on the misery with a 74th minute rocket that didn't quite dip heavily enough, before Kalle ter Berg
attempted to make the best of a lousy trip with ten minutes to go, only to see his grounder refused by Jardin's quick feet. There was one thing left for Serpin to do, which was to have Teo Chuan Yong
make his first Grilled appearance as a late sub, and to the former youth academy graduate's credit, he was all smiles as he came on for Bilal despite it being a doomed endeavour.