Warriors Cut Close
Grilled Birds had entertained the East Coast Warriors only once before, twenty-three seasons ago in the last sixteen of a Singapore Cup campaign that they went on to win, and it was much the same then as now - a late, skin-of-teeth win after the Warriors seized the lead. Their German head coach Rudolf Kempff would implement a tailored counterattacking approach, unlike when they tried to match the Birds blow for blow, and would fall just short if in an entirely different manner.
It should be said that Kempff had been playing at least four at the back in cup competition all along, and with Estonian international goalkeeper Gerthard Asi behind it all, it was only logical for them to play to their strengths. Asi's supporting cast were very respectable in their own right too, with Patrizio Nastasi and Frank Simonsen both seasoned centrebacks, and 21 year-old Dutch addition Donald van de Steeg added his own brand of dynamism to an otherwise solidly orthodox backline.
Kempff would opt for an unbalanced midfield with countryman Fynn-Paul Drelles biased towards the left, which appeared a calculated measure to minimize the number of directions in which they had to guard from, as this encouraged Heng Dong Chu
to advance down the opposite flank - ideally to find no enticing outlet, from the Warriors' perspective. There were few unexpected deployments otherwise, the main one probably being Bernie Egan
being chosen over Vikram Mudaliar
as the focal point of Grilled's attack, likely due to his recent tourney exploits.
The Warriors were not shy about resorting to negative play at all, and their grim patience would serve them well, more than once; the Birds were essentially not allowed anywhere even close to their penalty area for the first ten minutes or so, and it took all of Kalki Parvathaneni
's creativity, to shake his man and plant himself at the corner of the box, as Bilal Mohammad Harun
somehow got the ball to him in the 18th minute. The blind volley was pretty exceptional given these circumstances, but nowhere near troubling Asi.
More stubborn defending would follow, with the East Coast Warriors set having no reservations of getting rough when it was warranted. Indeed, Franjo Marčić was possibly a little unfortunate, that his little shove on Bernie Egan
was called by the referee. It turned out well for them in the end, as Egan's quick take would be fended off by the alert defenders, and the Warriors earned their own free-kick at Grilled's end. Patrizio Nastasi put it in, and Nazir Mohd Umar finished from Marčić's knockdown, easy as that.
Grilled's bad memories from previous such stalemate breakouts were surfacing, from how they looked noticeably frazzled upon restarting, and it would take some long minutes before they could go back to a more composed mode - if not before Moey Xin Seng
got booked for a spot of off-the-ball holding. Well, Kalki's equalizer off an opportunistic drive would calm the Birds further, and Chan Ze Han
's own bid towards taking the lead was prevented only by Asi's magnificent goaltending, in time added on.
This amounted to a reset, and the Warriors were more than willing to bide their time again, for the second half. It would again start off with the Birds making next to no headway, to which Serpin finally introduced Salah Kamel
for the not particularly productive Teo Chuan Yong
, with an hour gone. That was the medicine Grilled needed, so it seemed, as Moey and Egan drew excellent successive saves from Asi, in the next couple of minutes.
Grilled's newfound impetus was not without its risks, as Nastasi sent a great free-kick whistling just past Jānis Salmiņš
' far post in response, with the goalie well beaten; still, one would surely prefer to be in green at this point in the contest, as the Birds continued pounding at the door. Bernie Egan
more than justified his pick with an unmatched will to take opponents on, but he met his match in Asi, who tipped his superb lob over, before again blocking his powerful header from the ensuing corner.
That would lead to another just-as-planned counterattack for the Warriors, who were again not far from wheedling a goal from a free-kick, with Salmiņš making the save on this occasion. This attempt also all but marked the end of the crazy period that had marked Kamel's entrance, with East Coast Warriors now pulling back in earnest, and it was not hard to guess what they wanted: a winner on the counter if possible, penalties if not.
There were fair odds for the latter, as the Warriors again showed just how tough a nut they were to crack, when they put their heart into defending. There appeared little that Grilled could do against five at the back... at least until Moey Xin Seng
spotted Asi slightly off his line in the final minute. As it was, that minor mistake - perhaps the keeper's only one of the game - would be their last.