Heep Of Excitement
It would be a draw today for Grilled Birds versus Arcturules, eight seasons after they last met in the Emerald Challenger Cup final, which the Birds swept 4-0. The East Coast luminaries have maintained a respectable record against Grilled even accounting for that, though, with the ten meetings between the clubs evenly split before kick-off. Both were somewhat reduced from what they had been, though with some residual star power. For Arcturules, this would be their marquee Number Nine signing, Cameroon's Innocent Mpondo, arrived from Dorftrampel e.V. at the start of the season for S$10.4 million. With six goals to his name already, he has not disappointed.
Other than Mpondo, former Egyptian youth international Anis Kheir Allah would be found in midfield, with Jamaican right winger Desmond Esdaile given the armband. Grilled for their part awarded Enrique Baena
a first league start after some impressive training sessions, with Ang Keng Chuan anchoring Chad Thach
and Chia Kwang Tse
in midfield. Two crushing defeats had resulted in a sad turnout a shade below thirty thousand at a largely-empty The Cooking Pot, before mentioning the stifling heat.
Arcturules would elect to minimize risks and seek Mpondo on long balls in a 5-4-1, which was probably a reasonable if unadventurous approach. With the midfield talent they had, a more possession-based game would probably have gone well for them as well. The Birds refused to be walkovers, especially when their opponents were not applying all that much pressure, with Aw Keng Chuan
revealing his more attacking side as well. Chan won a corner in the 21st minute as he tried shooting, and from the inswinger, Aw would get a nick on it with Marko Karhunen breathing down his neck - just nice for Moey Xin Seng
to whip it in off the post.
That was somewhat unexpected, with Arcturules not having being tested defensively in the first twenty minutes, but in any case they retained most of the aces here. It would be time for their big names to shine, with Anis unstoppable at times on the dribble. He timed his 28th minute run onto Jouko Hyvärinen's sideway pass excellently, and poked it past Bhavya Panigrahi
after stealing a half-step on the defender. That had him face-to-face with Manuel Vadalà
, and the Italian goalkeeper would be taken out with another change of pace.
Grilled did get themselves together better after conceding, and the remainder of the half would be relatively balanced, building up to a goal exchange towards the end. First, Mpondo would display his lethal finishing as Esdaile bent it in from the right, with his first-time volley burrowing straight in at the near corner. Teo Chuan Yong
would answer it immediately as he picked the ball up on the left edge of Arcturules' penalty area, though, and Moey nearly put the Birds ahead after that, as Aw stopped another push early. The Grilled captain's placed grounder would be turned around the post by Goffredo Perticone, however.
Iranian head coach Yaghoub Tavana might have been expecting his side to be in a better position at half-time, and when play restarted, it was evident that Esdaile had been told to push the pace. This might have worked against them, actually. Bilal was no slouches either, and would make good use of the space suddenly available for him. 52 minutes in, he would switch play to the right, where Baena would snag an assist to start his pro league career off, as he fed Chan Ze Han
. Chan in turn made short work of Javier Dostals with a simple stepover and strike. 3-2, Grilled.
Arcturules were getting slightly anxious now, which would be reflected in their formation being broken all too often by the Birds' eager running. Grilled might well have won this on another day, as they came up with two more brilliant opportunities, by the 60th. Teo's effort from six yards should have gone in but for Perticone throwing up his left arm reflexively, and Panigrahi would then sling one barely over the crossbar, as Arcturules crumbled in midfield.
Tavana knew he had to arrest the slide, and his next adjustment would be to order José Ortega Molina to advance too. In contrast with the previous jiggling, this worked wonders, and Arcturules would hold the ball a lot more than before. Eventually, Okwunudu Dogar's threatened break to the inside would have Aw Keng Chuan
take him down from behind, which resulted in a third yellow for the season, and thus a suspension, for the Grilled player.
Florian Fromentin would come on for Dogar, who was left complaining about his right knee, and Jouko Hyvärinen would concurrently be shifted up into the middle, which was the final impetus that the visitors needed. Baena's inexperience would cost the Birds dearly here, as he left Molina unattended in the 74th minute, despite that being his obvious task at the moment. Axel Heep would seize the chance to overload Grilled on that flank, and the German midfielder would tie it up again, with a calm finish.