Through To The Finals
Kang Kong Wanting
This would be Grilled Birds' first competitive matchup against Kang Kong, though a number of the Birds' current starters had hosted them in their Cabbages incarnation, some nine seasons back. Of the Cabbages team then, only Glen Wei and Chua Yi Chang would be present as unused substitutes, and as it turned out, the margin of victory would be identical - by three goals, to the Birds.
With Pegasus SC opening up a six-point lead in III.2, Kang Kong would find it easy to focus on cup competition, and they had eliminated Joker 9 and then Phantasm Hotspurs in the Ruby Challenger Cup following their defeat to Sarcastic Fringeheads in the main edition. Considering that they had a 3-0 win over Club Dinosauria under their belt, one had to acknowledge that they were well capable of an upset were the Birds to get too lax.
Grilled's tourney defeat to Steeple Sinderby Wanderers appeared to have shaken them up, unfortunately for Kang Kong, and there were zero suggestions that the Birds were about to be complacent here - not that there was any reason to, in a cup semifinal. They did reshuffle their players, with a seldom-seen combination of Bernie Egan
supporting Chan Ze Han
and Vikram Mudaliar
as wide attackers, to begin with. Moey, Teo and Kalki also made for a fresh-look midfield, with Kalle ter Berg
pushed out wide, and Salah Kamel
The players were frankly good enough to improvise, that said, and it would be more Kang Kong's obduracy, rather than any failing on the part of the Grilled contingent, that held the Birds back. An early 13th minute goal from Kalki Parvathaneni
did much to soothe nerves, thankfully, and he would make sure to thank Bernie Egan
for looking out for the pass then.
Kang Kong would be resolved not to concede so cheaply a second time, and their five-man backline wound up sitting even closer to their own goal; new Spanish signing Jesús Puig got just enough on Kalle ter Berg
to throw the Dutchman off his header from a corner in the 23rd minute, and the ensuing putback by Chan Ze Han
would have young Solihan Talib bravely scoop it away from Vikram Mudaliar
's feet. This would be the story of the day for the Number Nine, by the way.
Case in point, Mudaliar's excellent lob from the edge of the box would have counted on most other days, but for Yip Keng Ping somehow knowing to station himself at the back post in the 31st minute. It nearly got much worse as Kang Kong turned it into a dangerous counterattack, spearheaded by new S$13.8 million forward Szczepan Molenda. This would be worked into a fair opening for Edward Bruś, but the winger sliced his effort wide.
There would be a booking for Bhavya Panigrahi
as Kang Kong forged ahead, but the winds would again change as quickly as they had just done. Kostas Damaskinos seemed to have had Chan Ze Han
entirely covered, as a high ball wound its way towards the Grilled star. The Greek defender would find, to his embarassment, that there were no absolutes with Chan; receiving the ball high with his instep, Chan would nutmeg Damaskinos in the blink of an eye, and Talib would not have time to reset himself before the ball had passed him.
Talib could take slight solace in Vikram Mudaliar
then firing over from under ten yards, which had the striker kneeling over in contrition. A two-goal lead was nevertheless enough for Eren Serpin
to chance Heng Dong Chu
on the left wing for the second half, on for Ter Berg. Heng did seem to have instructions to operate more conservatively, that said.
The match would get back on its way with an exchange of stylish free-kicks, as Bhavya Panigrahi
first sent a magnificent curler at Talib's top left corner, only for the eighteen year-old to come up with a world-class flying save. This would be topped by Olivier Frouin's piledriver five minutes later that had Jānis Salmiņš
entirely beaten, only to come down off the post. Kang Kong claimed it, but El Salvadorean referee and former El Motörhead star Arnoldo Barboza insisted that the ball had not fully crossed the goalline - as was confirmed by the video referee.
That bit of high drama done with, the game resumed with the Birds slowly exerting control over the direction of play, and Kang Kong would have to rely increasingly on Talib to stay in contention. Talib's fingertop stop off Egan would raise his teammates' morale, and a two-goal lead really didn't seem entirely insurmountable, from how Molenda and Cousot were interacting up front.
Time was on Grilled's side for all that, and the match would tip firmly over to their end, with a Moey Xin Seng
special in the 82nd minute. Heng Dong Chu
darted to the outside of a slowing Efraín Correa before putting a short cross in, which Moey met with a scissors kick. That had Chu Xin Lee
enter for Wu Jinglong
, and Mudaliar would of course be denied again, this time by Damaskinos off the line.