At The Last Hurdle
It was in the end not to be, as Grilled were kept out by Sarcastic Fringeheads in a solemn and all too proper conclusion at the Sarcastic Fringehead Arena today. This was much more a match of what had not happened, than what had, and sadly the former applied far more to the Birds than their hosts.
While left unsaid, there had always been the expectation that Fringeheads would seek to play on the defence, given all the hints that Zegers had been dropping in the past days. This happened prescient enough, as they went even further than the 4-5-1 that had seen them crash to Club Dinosauria last weekend. That remarkable upset would remain at the forefront of the jawboing in the build-up, as pundits gladly hypothesized over the extent to which it had affected the league leaders.
It might have, in fact, but it didn't matter. The usual suspects turned up for Fringeheads, and while the likes of Zaki Taleb and Ivan Borichev might have come slightly down off their absolute peaks, but they were still formidable opponents to face. Thai sweeper Huang Jianming, for one, had a special assignment, which involved giving Chan Ze Han
as little freedom as possible.
Against this, Eren Serpin
had Vikram Mudaliar
spearhead Grilled's attack, with Chan and Bernie Egan
on his left and right respectively. Mateja Jeftić
would make the team ahead of Gilbert Webb
, with Ter Berg, Bilal and Kamel favoured in midfield ahead of the homegrown set of Moey, Kalki and Muthyala, reflecting well Serpin's impartiality. Wu Jinglong
would receive a hostile reception from his former fans on his entrance, but he would shrug it off with a faint smile - ever the professional.
After all the suspense, the contest would effectively be determined after five minutes, only it was not known at the time. Fringeheads proved far more mobile than one might have suspected, and Zaki Taleb gave Wu a run for his money at this stage of the game, which brought much cheering from the crowd. One such dribble had Taleb poke it through to Hans Heinrich Merkatz - who just about helped it pas Massoud Dob
Objective accomplished, the hosts then made it very clear that it was Grilled's problem to catch up. The full extent of Fringeheads' organizational discipline would be made manifest, as they emphasized ball retrieval when they did not have it, and playing only the highest-percentage passes when they did. The only sniff that Grilled managed for the rest of the half would be a typical Kalle ter Berg
barnstormer from outside the box, which Artur Rosa Gomes Oliveira tipped around the post.
Ter Berg would not see out the half, very unfortunately, as a all-out aerial challenge against Borichev would see him land heavily on his back, and be unable to get up. The medics being extremely cautious to move him as little as possible didn't bode well for the seriousness of the injury, and the Grilled team showed little interest in pushing the game for the few remaining minutes following Teo Chuan Yong
's unscheduled arrival.
That was it, and the scant few openings that Grilled had managed to create in the half, probably drove Eren Serpin
to gamble on spending his remaining two subs immediately. Bilal and Chu would make way for Moey Xin Seng
and Cyril Künzler
, but not even these two exceedingly-experienced loyalists could make much headway against a singularly frustrating Fringeheads team. Once bent on defence, next to nothing could shake them.
Serpin's decision to use up all of Grilled's subs would go bad, as Wu Jinglong
would have to be taken off in the 67th minute, after a vicious tackle from Ryan Kerr when Wu had already gone to ground. The Grilled head coach was absolutely furious at how the Scotsman managed to stay on after that, but his railing at the fourth official went ignored, and Kerr almost rubbed salt into the wound with a near assist to Merkatz.
This did spark the most-threatening few minutes of the Birds - which, honestly, was still less than impressive. Chan Ze Han
would detach himself from Huang for just long enough as Moey prepped for the pass release, but the delightful cooperation between the stars would only fetch a magnificent leg save by Olivera. The Birds weren't done yet, and kept the ball bouncing around the area for awhile, but Olivera would save yet again, this time off Vikram Mudaliar
Things were getting heated between Kerr and several Grilled players by this point, and Zegers was probably wise to defuse the situation by removing his captain for Gareth Illes, seeing as Kerr seemed very close to a second yellow. More of the same would follow, with Fringeheads uninterested in risking a third S-League title, and the Birds would be unable to drag themselves out of the mire.