3 - 2 Grilled Birds
A Bitter Smile
Haha Hold Out
For the first time, Grilled Birds would taste defeat in a cup final, as Haha's continued bet on a pure counterattacking game came off once again. Having rode it to defeat Fringeheads in the semis, this means that they have beaten out both previous winners to take their maiden Singapore Cup - a testament to their worthiness of the trophy.
It would be dishonest to overplay their chances before kick-off, even in hindsight, Grilled's perfect finals record notwithstanding; although the Birds had lost their head-to-head in the league, their results otherwise had analysts mostly calling the game firmly for the defending holders, and even the Woodlands club's most loyal supporters could hardly deny the statistics. What they did
have was Nasrul Haq Khairil Syahmi battling his way back from injury to captain the team at leftback, and a nigh-unparalled record of consistency, having made it seventeen consecutive seasons in the S-League.
For the Birds, Eren Serpin
had unexpectedly withheld Kalle ter Berg
from the starting XI, despite Bernie Egan
and Neeraj Muthyala
being ruled out; it would be their accustomed 2-5-3 to pose the questions that demanded opponents find answers, which as many teams and pundits have found, is far easier done on the whiteboard than on the pitch. Wu Jinglong
would be left to roam on the right, with Chu Xin Lee
bringing his own incalculable suite of talents to the left.
There were few illusions about how this clash would play out, as Haha arrayed themselves in a 5-3-2, that more or less invited Grilled Birds to do their worst. Salah Abd El Razzak had laid his cards bare from the outset, so it looked, not that there was frankly much point in trying to disguise the obvious. To such candid intent, it would have been churlish of the Birds to dissimulate either, and it was attack, attack, attack, once Swiss referee Nicolò Facchini blew to begin.
Grilled would come to rue that initial burst of reckless, however. It all seemed to be going their way when Wu Jinglong
advanced imperiously with the air of one who had seen it all before, and Vikram Mudaliar
expertly dummied the inbound pass for Chan Ze Han
; Chan was already preparing to celebrate after releasing his shot, but Carlos Andino pushed it aside by a hair, and Miguel Parguiña sprinted across to secure the ball. The Spaniard retained enough presence of mind to look up before clearing... and it was Haha who claimed the lead, with rising ex-U-20 star Vishvesharaiyah Gudivada splitting the Grilled defence in taking the long pass down.
Now that was what Haha were looking for, and while it was early days yet for Grilled, one could sense a certain doubt creeping in. That feeling only intensified after yet another close shave in the 13th minute, as Haha broke out once more, after Moey Xin Seng
had been dispossessed in their penalty area. He conceded a free-kick trying to win it back, which Aw Tian Jin immediately sprayed sixty yards out for Basilio Rampazzi - who would have been odds-on to score, had he reached it.
And then, the equalizer. Grilled Birds had to toil hard for it, as Haha's grim resolve saw them make any Birds player that made it near their box, very uncomfortable indeed. From how promptly they responded to almost all of the Birds' offensive patterns, they had probably been drilling specifically to their past videos, though it was not a foolproof preventative, as Chu Xin Lee
demonstrated. Having struck the winner in the last edition, Chu would reprise that glorious day, with a fierce drive that found its way between Aw and Parguiña.
Their initial advantage now lost, Haha would return to their initial defense in depth, and although Grilled barely let up in the following forty-plus minutes, there was simply no easy way to crack this shell. Gudivada proved inexhaustable as a sweeper in front of three centrebacks, and despite the Birds' forwards having gone all out too, there were simply few, if any, open looks to be had. Moreover, Haha had the safe hands of Andino behind it all, and he certainly wasn't about to be beaten by anything less than a worldie on this day.
had exuded a nearly-unnatural composure after Chu's equalizer, and he had every right to, from how the Birds were pulling all the strings. However, as the minutes drifted by, his calm assurance could not help but fade, especially as Haha's forwards were noticeably saving their strength. Given this, Serpin would elect to make his move with twenty minutes remaining - Kalle ter Berg
would enter for Moey Xin Seng
, which brought with it the promise of overweening firepower. Moey appeared downcast for an instant as he spied his number coming up, but collected himself in a jiffy to hand the armband to Chan Ze Han
, with an embrace.
Alas, this was a tactical substitution gone wrong - or so the annals would have it. In truth, Ter Berg would have next to nothing to do with what happened next, and had Bhavya Panigrahi
's effort not be clawed over by Andino, history might have been wholly different. It was what it was, unfortunately, and the corner kick would be worked into a free-kick on the counter, with Mateja Jeftić
having little option but to bump Rampazzi off balance. It seemed a wise decision too, but Nasrul Haq Khairil Syahmi lined it up, and curled it perfectly over and around the last man in the wall, leaving Massoud Dob
no chance at all.
One error led to another, as Grilled's haste to chase the game - actually probably unavoidable given the circumstances - bit them once again. Given how compressed the Haha formation was by this stage, the Birds would resort to a facsimile of total football in attempting to break it down, after Issac An's departure for Cory Trang was completed. It fell to Mateja Jeftić
to make the final push in the 74th minute... only for Syahmi to stop him with an immaculate challenge. Haha then went on to exploit the gap that Jeftić had left behind him, and Ursin de Rougemont dropped the ball beyond Dob for 3-1.
A few Grilled players could hardly contain themselves at what looked a deathblow, and it would be Chan Ze Han
who would step in the breach, as he exhorted his teammates to keep going, with eyes blazing. That did the trick, and the Birds would collect themselves for their final charges. Vikram Mudaliar
would play through pain only to be sent sprawling in the 81st minute, but Wu Jinglong
had expected that; the winger collected the loose ball and breezed past Syahmi, to reduce the deficit.
Recall, the Birds had come from behind no less than five times to win their last Singapore Cup, and thus their fans might be forgiven for thinking that history was replaying itself here. It certainly looked that way as Chu Xin Lee
again bore down on their next attack, but Andino would - for the umpteenth time - get to the sweetly-struck shot in time, despite its late swerve. That would be as close as Grilled would get, for all their frantic closing raids, and Chu himself could scarcely hide his tears as he went off for Cyril Künzler
in Serpin's last throw of the dice.