Kalki From Left Field
The Birds seized payback and forward ambitions in equal measure, as a swift reprisal of last season's climactic title-decider had them put defending champions Sarcastic Fringeheads aside, 3-0. Jorge Vicente Zegers would keep with what had worked for the hosts then, with the main concession of playing Scottish skipper Ryan Kerr as their sole striker. The outcome would be entirely changed, though, as an out-of-position Kalki Parvathaneni
made Heng Dong Chu
worry about his spot at left wing.
There might have been some tactical misjudgment involved here, as Zegers opted to repeat the man-marking against Chan Ze Han
, that had paid off so handsomely last month. Chan, however, had been shifted out to wide right, with Vikram Mudaliar
taking the centre instead. Moreover, Huang Jianming, who had kept Chan under tabs as much as could be expected then, would begin on the bench today, and this left the newly-signed Bogdan Bărbulescu to track his quarry, some distance from his assigned territory.
The Fringeheads were doubtless experienced enough to adjust to a large extent, but the arrangement remained somewhat unnatural at best, and the path had been opened for Grilled to showcase their considerable attacking flair. Mudaliar for one would be unabashedly forward, having been released from all tracking duties, and he would pick up an indirect free-kick after Vincent Chan had tried to restrict his off-the-ball movement once too often. Mateja Jeftić
lofted it tantalizingly into the box, and while Moey Xin Seng
just missed out on getting his head onto it, Kalki would snatch at the clearance and deliver it through the mass of legs for 1-0.
Another S-League title had converted some pundits back towards Fringeheads' new bid, but the commentators could not help but return to the previous mounting criticism, as the match progressed. This was, of course, on their ageing squad, with defensive mainstay Vincent Chan for one having clearly lost a couple of steps on turning 37. This was not something that a deep understanding of the game could make up for at this level, and he would be left badly exposed when Bernie Egan
took him on in the 26th minute. A desperate last-ditch tackle just outside the penalty area would stumble but not stop the Irishman, who recovered to nick his effort slightly wide of Artur Rosa Gomes Oliveira's post.
That didn't keep Israeli referee Oleg Elbashan for booking Chan retrospectively for his initial bad challenge, and it was evident that Fringeheads needed every body that they could muster, in defence. In practice, this meant that Bărbulescu would have to abandon his man-marking of Chan Ze Han
, which had immediate consequences. Mudaliar would win another set-piece by driving the ball against a defender on the touchline, and Chan would transform the long corner, to an excellent setup for Kalle ter Berg
, who in turn picked up right where he had left off.
Two-nil could have been three quickly enough, as Grilled had their hosts firmly on the ropes at this stage of the match. The near eighty thousand-strong crowd could but largely observe in muted disbelief, as the Birds went from wielding a scalpel in precision attacks, to all but sledgehammering their way right through the middle, heedless of disguise. This was right up Bilal Mohammad Harun
's alley, and the midfielder would take a crack from some twenty-odd metres out, after being stood off - and he wasn't all that far away.
The home fans made their displeasure clear, as the teams trotted off at half-time, but there was no indication that Zegers had any solution here. Replacing Kerr or pressing him into midfield to return to a 5-5-0 was perhaps the most obvious response, were they not already two goals down. They did have a deep bench, that said, but it would not be called upon when they retook the field, not just yet.
Bereft of reinforcements, the Fringeheads would fare little batter as the contest resumed, as an assured Grilled set would carry on with their offensive posture. That the Birds' attempts were relatively transparent was true, but the point here was that Fringeheads were unable to fully deal with them, for all their overtness. Egan and Moey, for instance, would easily find comfortably pockets of space to work in, and a long build-up saw Gilbert Webb
test Oliveria with a fine diving header in the 52nd.
This did at least lead to Sarcastic Fringeheads' first big opportunity of the day, as Chew Fu Chuan kept his wits about him to evade a follow-up challenge from Egan, and then spot David Koppensteiner calling for it in the centre circle. Not only that, the 38 year-old covered the distance from box to box in a matter of seconds, just what Koppensteiner required with Kerr securely covered. Jānis Salmiņš
somehow elected to stay near his line, which on hindsight worked out as Chew knocked it inches wide.
The Fringeheads players' diminishing stamina couldn't be hidden for much longer either, as they expended themselves on chasing the ball, and Mladen Jurkota's substitution off for Răzvan Patca would soon be followed by Chew coming off for Huang Jianming. The commentators were just noting that Vincent Chan had to be a candidate, due to his earlier booking, when Kalki coolly bypassed him to strike his second goal of the game.
That was it for the hosts' hopes, all the more as they had hardly mounted any real threat to Salmiņš' goal before this, with Ryan Kerr having been smothered by the Webb-Jeftić combination all along. Moey would come close to a fourth, Fringeheads would send Gareth Illes on to little effect, and a triumphant Serpin would finally give Heng Dong Chu
and Wu Jinglong
token appearances, in the last minute of play.