Sailing Into The Semis
Moey The Profligate
In a repeat of their 3-1 victory in the last sixteen from three seasons ago, the Birds eliminated reigning Ruby Challenger Cup holders Marina Sailors from the Singapore Cup. Very consistent cup performers in recent years, the Sailors have made a smooth leadership transition over to Romanian head coach Cristian Tărâţă, but never really came close to an upset on a day distinguished by Grilled's wastefulness in front of goal.
That aside, the Sailors had just packed star winger Loy Jin Aik off to Uruguay Division Three leaders El BarZa De WeSs for a round S$13.5 million, despite his tremendous efforts in their win over Bot Team FC; with recent big German signing Andreas Oetermann still ruled out after a bad ankle injury suffered against kala811s, all eyes would be on Cambodian centreback Narin Mian and Chilean midfielder Conrrado Sires, both of whom arrived in the second half of the previous season. With Oetermann unavailable, Tărâţă resorted to a 4-5-1 with Giorgio Riolfatti alone up top, and he was forthcoming with his approach: seek to frustrate the Birds with solid fundamentals on defense, and hope to spring a surprise or two.
As strategies went, this was probably sensible if not entirely original, and unfortunately for the Sailors, Grilled were in a productive mood. Now, Marina Sailors had a more than respectable back four, with all of Mian, Zetti, Lampert and Swedish skipper Puchong Punyachartrat being first-class defenders. However, the team's passive approach would let the Birds gradually crank the pressure up beyond what even their considerable abilities could bear, with Grilled not having been given reason to be wary of a counterattacking threat.
The balance would be tipped in the twelfth minute, with Heng Dong Chu
- starting only his fourth game of the season - advancing at a steady clip up the left side. The Sailors players had apparently decided that he was a lesser threat compared to the various forwards trying to make themselves available, but this disrespect would be sorely punished. While never known for his pace, Heng had enough of it to pull past Narin Mian, and he rode Mian's messy tackle of last resort, before stroking it nicely around Ramón Galarreta in goal.
Portuguese referee Brás Afonso Xavier would further haul Mian up for a yellow card before restarting the match, to rub it in, and the Sailors' best-laid plans would again go awry within mere minutes. Instinct overrode their programming as they went for the equalizer, only to be caught out as Grilled sent a long clearance straight to Kalki Parvathaneni
. Clearly unwilling to risk a sending-off this early, Mian had his hands tied as Kalki went right at him, and the eventual layoff would be chipped over the advancing goalie by Moey Xin Seng
This was turning out to be a nightmare for the Cambodian centreback, though his teammates were at least understanding at his predicament. It wasn't as if Tărâţă had many options left to him, with both himself and German utility backup Dragan Landwehr well into their own twilight years. The Sailors had to lean heavily on Ramón Galarreta to get them through this testing period, with the Spanish goalie having to pull out a couple of quite brilliant saves, against Moey and then Kalki.
The biggest surprise of the half was how Moey Xin Seng
managed to get through it without adding to his tally, as he all but went ape on the Sailors' withdrawing backline. A big effort in the 33rd minute would scrape the post, while only Giuseppe Zetti prevented Moey's curler from sneaking in, about four minutes later. That last would finally garner a shot on target for the Sailors, but Massoud Dob
would be equal to Kwan Guang Soon's excellent attempt, as the former U-20 international bore down through the middle.
Marina Sailors would do little to advance their cause even after the break, with it being all Riolfatti could do, to try and establish a presence in Grilled's half. He arguably managed that much, but it wasn't all that convincing, with the Birds having few compunctions in leaving him alone with a single marker, most of the time. On the attacking end, Kalki Parvathaneni
made a breakthrough in the 53rd minute, but put it over.
The supporters appeared to be getting a little frustrated at the Birds' continued failures in front of goal, but given that their opponents were posing no serious threat as of yet, this could yet be forgiven. It would, in the end, take a defender to show the rest how it should be done, as Bhavya Panigrahi
steamed through the ranks in the 67th minute, having guessed where Salah Kamel
's lob would land. Galarreta came very close to bailing his team out again then, but Panigrahi got there a step earlier, and found the gap between the goalkeeper's arms with a delightful first-time flick.
3-0 was more than the Sailors could realistically overturn at this juncture, though they did themselves justice by never quite capituating in the face of near-impossible odds. Riolfatti would salvage some pride with a consolation goal in the 78th minute, as they made one of their best attacking combinations after Wu Jinglong
's free-kick was blocked, and Kalle ter Berg
's bid to keep his scoring streak going would be denied by Galarreta. Kristian Rakčević would go off with a twisted ankle with four minutes remaining, but there was frankly little left in the game for him - or the Sailors - in any case.