The Birds survived a feisty Singapore Big Dogs visit, as the literal underdogs plonked themselves down at The Cooking Pot, with a resolution that belied their humble position in the league. Although they had not done badly at all going about their normal game at The Doghouse, with Grilled having to wait until the final twelve minutes to pull away decisively, they would outdo themselves with a defensive approach here.
Sorin Ciugudean, who had struggled somewhat against Grilled's nippy forwards then, would be benched for the more-rounded Jani Lindqvist, with homegrown Vinod Modi returning at rightback. To accomodate the extra man at the back, Hudson Matsumoto would be cut, with Deng Yew Leong shifting his midfield role to compensate. Much would again be expected of wingers Leong Chu Shun and Mahesh Murthy, given little potential for overlapping by the wingbacks in this 4-4-2.
Kalle ter Berg
would be the surprise omission for Grilled, as Eren Serpin
delivered on his promise to rotate without fear and favour - and given that Moey Xin Seng
wasn't part of the starting XI either, one had to believe the head coach. Chu Xin Lee
continued as his preferred option at left wing, though, and there was no pretense about this entire offensive unit being constructed to support Chan Ze Han
as its focal point.
As if by agreement, Grilled would steer the direction of the match from Francesc Oliver's opening whistle, against the visitors' wholly-defensive intentions. It wasn't especially difficult for the Birds to get themselves into plausible shooting positions, even if the Big Dogs clamped down on anything more. Gilbert Webb
wasn't about to let Wicaksana Mabenda go completely untested, and he unleashed a stormer from distance in the sixth minute, that had the Indonesian veteran scrambling across goal; it went wide in the end, though.
That was but a beginning, and Grilled's offensive continued, largely powered by Wu Jinglong
's productivity down the right. Perhaps with the knowledge that he wouldn't be asked to withstand the full ninety minutes, Wu wouldn't spare his energy, and a wonderful exchange with Vikram Mudaliar
saw the latter return a cross in the 13th minute. Unfortunately, Wu's chip would be clawed aside, and the corner return would see the Big Dogs freed down their right flank, with Mahesh Murthy pushing a frantic pace. Player-coach Tomas Svensson had seen this coming, and was in place to finish at the near post, for his first goal of the campaign.
The visiting fans would break out their seldom-used goal chant for Svensson at that, and it looked to be only getting better for them, as their midfield suddenly began to find gaps in a slightly-shaken Grilled defence. Murthy was again off and away 19 minutes in, and Massoud Dob
would have to be on his toes, to ward Deng Yew Leong's drilled effort aside. Four minutes later, however, it would be the Birds back in the game, as Vikram Mudaliar
's understanding with Wu allowed him to take on the Chinese winger's pass early, and his brilliant first touch let him shake off Lindqvist for long enough to score.
With that equalizer, it was the Birds in the ascendancy, and Singapore Big Dogs' turn to doubt themselves. Barely two minutes later, Chu Xin Lee
made his way up the other flank with confidence, and he sought out Bilal Mohammad Harun
for his usual pop from just outside the box - which crept in. The visitors were really getting hammered for the next five minutes or so, with Kalki Parvathaneni
clanging the bar and Alex Zhang having to make a miraculous inch-perfect stop on Chan Ze Han
, before settling back into an uneasy equilibrium.
This state of balance would extend for the first fifteen minutes of the second half, with the Big Dogs having gotten used to most of what Grilled would come up with, moreover with Wu Jinglong
having noticeably slowed on the right side. Eren Serpin
would make the expected change on the hour mark, with Wu off for Cyril Künzler
, and it was heartening to watch the two veterans acknowledge each other as they met on the touchline. Neeraj Muthyala
, who had just made his 150th league start for Grilled Birds, would be off too, allowing Teo Chuan Yong
just his second appearance for his new club.
Well, the newcomers' presence seemed to have made an impact of its own, as the Birds poured forth on the throw-in. Leong Chu Shun had gambled and lost on making the interception, which had the Birds outnumber the defenders in that area of the pitch, and some incredible vision from Bilal Mohammad Harun
had him feed Kalki Parvathaneni
through the middle. The weight on that ball was so exquisite that a goalkeeper as experienced as Mabenda was caught in two minds as to whether to come out for it, and Kalki merely had to get a touch on it, for a conversion.
The match, despite Grilled's two-goal advantage and a lack of attacking intent from their opponents, was far from over yet. The Big Dogs remained full of quality down their spine, and from Vinod Modi's bone-crunching takedown of Teo in the 68th minute, they hadn't given up either. Modi might have been booked for that, but his teammates appeared infected by his spirit, and an electric breakaway three minutes later had Lindqvist pull one back for them.
The Birds sought to kill the visitors' revival with another goal, but Chan Ze Han
's excellent curler would be saved well by Mabenda, which probably had the opposite effect. To this, Serpin wasted no time in sending Mateja Jeftić
on for a tiring Bhavya Panigrahi
- and just as well too. The Big Dogs' next advance would force Vikram Mudaliar
to pull Edward Lock down in a desperate tangle inches outside the penalty area, and Massoud Dob
would have to bring out the best stop of his day, to deny Tomas Svensson's merciless cannon of a right foot, in the aftermath.