Kalle Not Enough
Grilled Birds crashed out of the second round of the Hattrick Masters in a battle of national double champions, falling 3-4 to Oman's Sol Mar. A brilliantly-orchestrated two-goal lead at the end of the first half would be marred by a bad knee injury to Bernie Egan
, and Sol Mar would only rise to their full potential thereafter.
The Birds were never under any illusions that this was going to be easy, obviously, and having current Costa Rican national custodian Alexander Baltodano between the sticks would give almost any striker pause. Baltodano's bumper S$29.5 million transfer fee was more norm than exception for the Omani giants, who had also recruited Belarus international defender Dzmitry Zhankevicz for a cool twenty million, and Finnish winger Ville Huotari in the off-season for close to seventeen.
With Maldives' star playmaker Meghaj Banerjee also available and starting, this made an enviable first XI for Italian head coach Roberto Mancini. Of all these illustrious names from Sol Mar, however, the one that got the most exposure in the pre-match buzz was probably Singapore's own Hemanth Sonkusare, with the former U-20 international from Asparagus having switched to them from Austria's Mephisto United, some three-plus seasons back. Sonkusare has since established himself as one of Mancini's favourite picks, with 39 goals for the club already - and this is without going into his versatility, that had him trusted with a midfield spot for their latest Ka'as Al-Sultan Qaboos final victory.
If Grilled weren't entirely overawed by their opponents' credentials, the surroundings might have given them some pause, with the second-round fixture scheduled at the cavernous 350,000-capacity salt pot on the stove in Tohoku, Japan. Not unreasonably regarded as impractical by some, the sheer scale of this engineering masterpiece was nevertheless overwhelming, and the official attendance of near 109,000 - Grilled's tenth-highest in their entire history - barely filling the nearest stands, would only add to the impact.
With all prepared, Grilled could hope for nothing more than a good match before a huge crowd against worthy foes, and Vikram Mudaliar
for one was not about to engage overly in false trappings of courtesy. After receiving the ball to his feet from the Birds' kickoff push, Mudaliar ran at - and past - a gazumped Konstantyn Bernat, and repeated the deed with Frane Grozdanić, who looked similarly disbelieving that he could go for the simplest of all approaches. The Number Nine's speed was no joke, though, and were it not for him marginally overhitting his last touch past Grozdanić, not even Baltodano might have managed to get there first.
There was a perceptible rush by latecomers to get to their seats, as the electric start to the match got broadcast all over, but what then greeted them would be some twenty minutes of tentative poking about. Sol Mar were clearly rattled to an extent by Mudaliar's boldness, even if this wasn't reflected in their typically-solid interplay, and Grilled evidently realized that their opponents weren't about to be taken by surprise again, and that trying too hard would only backfire against a team of their calibre.
Former Mexican international midfielder Javier Góngora was further bossing it in the centre, which made any desire by the Birds to force the issue, moot anyway. That considered, Grilled were actually more than holding their own, and rather more positively-oriented at this stage. What eventually did Sol Mar in after 20 minutes would be another direct advance, with their players meticulously marking out all of Kalle ter Berg
's options. This was more or less inviting the Dutchman to go for it by himself... which he did, first faking a shot before dashing into the box, and chipping Baltodano beautifully.
There were a few exchanges of the initiative as Sol Mar responded, but the Birds on balance probably barely stayed on top, with Bernie Egan
holding Naim Gardezi for just long enough to stick a left-footer well wide, in the 32nd minute. That would sadly be the Irish forward's last major attempt for some time, as his right knee crumpled under Gardezi's tackle, two minutes from half-time. There was no hiding the severity of the injury, from how Egan's leg lay at a painful-seeming angle, and the game would have to be paused for a time before the medics managed to fix it up enough before carting him off.
, himself just recovered from a thigh concern, would swap in for Bernie Egan
, but Sol Mar weren't about to let any residual guilt linger. Góngora deftly intercepted the free-kick and released Hemanth Sonkusare to roars from the Sol Mar supporters, but Massoud Dob
tipped the Singaporean's effort aside. Better, Gilbert Webb
retrieved it and lumped it downfield, drawing the opponents' first overt error of the match. Konstantyn Bernat thought no other outfielder was behind him when he casually headed it on for his goalkeeper, but hadn't counted on Kalle ter Berg
stealing a march from outside his field of vision.
That made a pretty unlikely 2-0 for Grilled Birds at half-time, and even the club's most fervent fans would have had to admit that it flattered them somewhat. Granted, one has to shoot to have a chance at scoring, and the Birds recognized that if nothing else. Moey Xin Seng
did so in the 51st minute too, after getting funnelled wide left, and did well to even clatter it off the goalpost.
This marked the beginning of Sol Mar's renaissance, and they would equalize with two goals in two minutes. Their diligent working of the wings would pay dividends sooner or later, and Grilled had barely taken in Ville Huotari's doubling-up on the left side, to having to watch as Xherdan Shaqiri zipped right in on another variation. Webb had been calling for assistance on the second attempt at least, but alas, his teammates were too slow to respond.
Grilled could hardly make the same mistake thrice, and regained enough of their previous composure by the 66th minute, to cobble together their own left-sided attack, through Chu Xin Lee
. Webb, eager to make up for his earlier shortcomings, hammered it slightly wide. More woe was to come for Grilled, as Massoud Dob
then flubbed a corner kick take - which was exactly what Dzmitry Zhankevicz was waiting for.
Now in front, Sol Mar would increase their lead to 4-2 in the 72nd minute, as the Birds' ability to defend in the wide areas continued to be called into question. Neeraj Muthyala
had built up a good understanding with Bhavya Panigrahi
before this, but neither were up to Huotari's trickiness on this occasion, and Frane Grozdanić offered himself for the finish.
The Birds were not totally done yet, and Chu Xin Lee
's own surprise cross to Salah Kamel
- sadly missed by a hair - would be followed by Vikram Mudaliar
's reducer, as the striker completed his unfinished business from the first minute. Sol Mar were too well-organized to be prised open a second time in the thirteen minutes that remained, though, and the duo of Cyril Künzler
and Mateja Jeftić
would have to be content with making their Hattrick Masters bows.