Merlions Dunk On
The Birds' first encounter with Merlion F.C. in their current form would result in a 0-6 washout at their Merlion Park, where just over fifty thousand fans had assembled in spite of the less than forthcoming weather. The groundsmen had battled largely in vain against the overnight rainstorm, but as it turned out, their players would likely have been clear winners whatever the conditions.
Grilled had racked up two wins against the Merlions' previous franchise-holder FC Pires some sixteen seasons before in III.15, but it would be an entirely different proposition today, what with the hosts looking a lot like what the Birds were striving to be: a confident 2-5-3 with raw quality in every position. Granted, their Croatian head coach Miljenko Mohorović, capped 27 times for his national youth team, did not emphasize pressing from the front near as much as Grilled's general philosophy. This would be more than made up for by sheer goal potential, though, what with their midfield three - captained by Mazin Nabil Al-Fazary - outclassing the Birds' selection.
Against this, Tian Yonghang
would start academy tag team Lim An Keng
and Chia Kwang Tse
together for once, perhaps in recognition of just how strong the Merlions' trio were. Arguably Grilled's strongest available midfield would not hold for long against Al-Fazary's familiarity with Luxembourg mates Christian Schaul and Patrick Holtzem, however, with it soon turning into literally men against boys. Saad Khasawneh didn't even get into a particularly dangerous position in the sixth minute as Holtzem fed him at the head of Grilled's box, but a perceptive turn and chip would find Dimitris Germanakos
A prompt response from Grilled Birds would see them manufacture one of their best chances with Chan Ze Han
playing smartly for the foul against Adaílton Azulão, but despite the hosts being momentarily taken aback by the ensuing free-kick pattern, solid man-to-man marking left the Birds with no openings in the end. The Merlions were hardly afraid of going hard, as Mircea-Sorin Căruntu showed with his beefy challenge on Egemen Dinçer Ferzan
for the Merlions' only card of the day, and it would moreover be to the Birds' detriment as they overextended on the setup, and had Azulão make it 2-0 from a left-sided recovery.
Mohorović would instruct his team to tamp it down, from his gesturing following that second goal in the 23rd minute, and it was not like the Birds could complain given how they were barely coping. There would be few events of note for the rest of the half as Al-Fazary presided over much safety-first distribution from the middle, and this conservatism extended well into the second half. Bilal Mohammad Harun
would be given a half-chance in the 50th minute from Doncho Cuculov's poor defensive header, but he wasn't alert enough, and was beaten to it by goalie Jānis Zariņš.
Still no closer to pulling one back, Tian would put Kalki Parvathaneni
on for a tiring Moey Xin Seng
with twenty minutes remaining, but hopes that Kalki's exceptional - if fading - acceleration would make a difference would be doused by Erik Holoubek scoring from a header immediately afterwards. Mircea-Sorin Căruntu had made some space for himself on the right, and the cross was great. Chia Kwang Tse
's simulation four minutes later was less than convincing and easy for referee Samuel Missanga to punish with a yellow, with the home fans not going easy either on a disgruntled Chia.
That little dive would soon be forgotten as Al-Fazary made to turn the screws on his own, as he continued Căruntu's dribble after the winger had been desperately upended by Enrique Baena
. The advantage would be played, correctly as it turned out, with Al-Fazary squeezing his drive between Germanakos and his near post. Gilbert Webb
's entrance for Bhavya Panigrahi
made no impression on the playmaker either, as he again broke through Grilled's lines to crash it home, two minutes on.
Mohorović could well afford a triumphal triple substitution right before fukk-time, but not even that would be the end of the day's humiliation for the visitors. Webb's time being over was seldom made more manifest than by how Christian Schaul easily outpaced the forty year-old from a five-yard disadvantage in an injury-time race, though Germanakos might really have done something more to prevent that sixth goal.