United We Stand
Memories were unavoidably stirred about the Birds' epic Cup final against Bot Team FC in this Round of Sixteen fixture, but Grilled would fortunately rewrite the conclusion in their own favour. Current II.1 leaders -= Manchester United =- would play their part in this no-holds-barred rumble, having won the duo's farewell match from the S-League some months ago, 7-5.
That was after a run of seven losses and two draws in competitive matches against Grilled Birds, mind, but the closeness of many of those contests left pundits reluctant to make the call in the lead-up. Goals were always going to be present, of that there was no doubt, with them having to go twelve meetings back, to find one that had fewer than four goals in it. Still, this was a United squad that had been ruthlessly trimmed by head coach Przemysław Kuziemski - Mirko Pogliaghi, Fredrik Solheim, Radim Chvátal and Dejan Skrt had all been let go after their relegation, with Italian forward Christoffer Hetper their main big-name replacement, at S$11.6 million from Nerder Brema.
Hetper would go on to make a huge impact in the game, but not quite enough. As for the Birds, Kalki and Kannan would play narrowly in what was a largely-unchanged starting lineup from last Wednesday, the only exception being Teo Chuan Yong
taking over from Moey Xin Seng
in midfield, and Chan Ze Han
assuming the captaincy. As for the playing conditions, they could not be much worse, with the pitch at Tarpots Rec. bearing a close resemblance to a swamp, after days of unceasing rain.
There would be no postponements, though, and scarce little meaningful action either, as the stars slogged it out in the mud. The first half-hour had not very much going on, bar United's free-kick in the fourteenth minute, that livened the drab day up a little. Douglas Carapaica
had cynically felled Horst Friedrich Dalen for that, and the delivery played short might have led to a shot, had the United bunch rushed for it. They didn't, however, and the danger was cleared.
The balance slowly tipped the way of the Birds, as the pitch seemed to drain gradually in concert. The goals would begin to arrive from the 31st minute on, when acting captain Chan Ze Han
sloshed through to fake Izydor Tovtuk out with a jiggle of the hip. Vikram Mudaliar
would then have his effort saved as Tovtuk refused to be beaten a second time in as many minutes, and United were then back level, with Sim Chin Chi swerving it around Jānis Salmiņš
, as the game opened up in earnest.
As usual for this fixture, there would be no putting the lid back on after this, and the defences would soon go missing with both teams throwing themselves to the wind. The previous pattern would be repeated, with Kalki Parvathaneni
switching to the right with devastating effectiveness in the 36th minute, and Hetper nodding Aleixo Cruzul's cross classily home four minutes on, after Sølve Lunde
had driven an eminently-scorable chance wide from six yards. Grilled Birds did go into the break in front, however, as a revitalized Bilal Mohammad Harun
went back to his cup-goal habit.
This was no less than what the fans had been expecting, and there was a constant buzz of expectation about the stadium, as they awaited the resumption of the match. To the Grilled side's consternation, they were beaten out of the gates by United, who pressed them hard from the kick-off. A momentary lapse by Douglas was all former Aussie youth international Darrell Powell needed to pounce on, and a few sweeping passes later, Horst Friedrich Dalen would get in on the inside of Gilbert Webb
, to grab his club's third equalizer of the day.
There would be a short stoppage as Hetper - perhaps United's top performer of the day, alongside Leendert Abbema - stayed down rubbing his left knee having been clattered in the build-up, but he would soon be back up and running. This seemed to wreck United's spell, though, and it would be Grilled back in front like clockwork, just two minutes on. Shekar Kannan
might perhaps have made less of an impression than the supporters had hoped, certainly nowhere close to what Wu Jinglong had managed, but he remained a legitimate threat when he gets going with ball at feet; which was what happened then.
Well, Hetper didn't seem to be slowed much by his earlier knock either, but then again it wasn't pace that the Italian relied on, to make his way past Webb in the 62nd. The Scottish defender had seen a lot in his long career, but Hetper remained with a trick or two up his sleeve, that totally outfoxed Webb when applied in quick succession. Jānis Salmiņš
came out to challenge, but would be undone by a shot curled in at the far post, at just the right instant.
And then, the pattern-breaker. With the match approaching the final ten minutes and still tied, the players had to be aware that any mistake could be their last, which probably accounted for their suddenly-cautious outlook. It really was a toss-up at this rate, and it would be United to seize the advantage, with Iikka Kulma-aho forcing his way deep down the left, and feeding Horst Friedrich Dalen for a conversion from close range.
Bakhtiar had no time to spare amidst United's jubilation as they went ahead for the first time, and his response was to entrust Salah Kamel
with turning it around, with the Number Seventeen coming on for an increasingly-uninspired Kannan. The immediate aftermath had the opponents' Spanish skipper Aleixo Cruzul put out of commission, as he went into a painful-looking split, after challenging with Chan Ze Han
for possession. Pierre-Étienne Marguet took over both his place, and the captaincy.
This was the kind of opportunity that Grilled were waiting for, and they would not allow United to consolidate their lead. There was no better exponent of that than Kalki Parvathaneni
, as the going-36 year-old attacked Marguet's wing for all he was worth, at the first opportunity. The Frenchman, like so many before him, was taken aback by what Kalki retained in the tank even at this late stage, and a simple wall pass with Chan got him around Sim Chin Chi, and in position to blast it high into the goal netting.
It then got a lot worse for United, who went from nearly getting another over against the Birds, to behind again in all of six minutes. Many in the crowd were on their feet by now as the game all but promised a dramatic finale, and they wouldn't have much longer to wait. The decider was actually relatively mundane, as Vikram Mudaliar
tapped it wide before a typical striker's finish, not that Grilled were going to be picky. Hetper then put a little too much of himself in tackling Abd Hadi Taib Mazhud
from the restart, but even the most fervent of Grilled's diehards had to feel a bit for him there.