Wan Fine Day
The previous and only other time the Birds had encountered Dragon Devil's, it was in the semifinals of the Sapphire Challenger Cup, which they shaded 2-1 leading into their only lifting of that trophy. It would be a thirteen-season wait for them to get another bite at the cherry, and they would have the better-balanced midfield by far today, resulting in a comfortable 2-0 win that was all but settled by the break.
Dragon Devil's would themselves lift the Sapphire Challenger Cup, defeating Joker 9 6-2 in the finals, on their next run, for their only national-level honours thus far; they would also come into the match freshly relegated from Division Two, but this was hardly a reflection on the quality of their squad, with their midfield marshalled by former Singapore U-20 star Phua Keong Kim - coincidentally a recently-returned Farmer Bunnies junior. Phua would have ex-Tampines Phoenix F.C. trainee Megat Amir Faisal Norshahrul Idlan and Finnish playmaker Eelo Mattila backing him up, to comprise a trio that was, if maybe slightly less energetic, definitely more composed and efficient that Grilled's developing bunch.
Bilal Mohammad Harun
had scored the two goals towards the Birds' victory in that semifinals, but while the 37 year-old remains in the club's employ, he would not be selected for the match at The Cooking Pot today. Instead, it would be Moey and Kalki to partner Chan Ze Han
up top, yielding an attack that was ponderous at best at times. Paulino Trindade
gamely picked up the slack from the left wing with visiting skipper Kendrick Yang in dominating form defensively, and it could have been very different had the youngster's exuberant strike gone in off the crossbar in the twelfth minute.
That was probably Grilled's best chance to win it in the whole game, as Dragon Devil's converted their subtle control of the middle, into a mastery of the other areas as well. Trindade didn't stop with his probing, and got some fans out of their seats with a raging drive in the 20th minute, which was however blocked by former national youth goalie Pratik Bhole, despite looking like it was heading wide. That was for the good of his team, as it turned out, as his defence cleared it out to Megat Amir, who swivelled past Hwang Teck Fu
's attempted tackle gracefully, then made a beeline for Grilled's goal. The Birds' defence fell back well enough, but neglected to spot Fan Keong Jing's late run, and a strong left-footed finish had it past Manuel Vadalà
The Italian custodian looked disgusted at himself for missing that one, and he wouldn't fare much better three minutes later, as Dragon Devil's pushed forward again. There didn't seem anything too special as their players pinged it around the outside of the penalty area, before an instinctive gamble from Mattila paid off big time. Nobody but Wan Abu Bakar Taha read Mattila's intentions correctly, and the 20 year-old forward only had to fire it into the roof of the net for 2-0.
There would be few real chances for either team up until half-time as the visitors withdrew to take stock, save for a bright spot for Grilled in the 29th minute, when Senegalese referee Niakar Basse gave Chan Ze Han
the benefit of the doubt, when he collided with Fan on the edge of the opposing box. Moey would perform the initial run-up with Chan also poised, and surprised not a few by actually lifting it over the wall. It was a splendid chip too, but not quite good enough to fool Bhole, who tipped it over.
Half-time had Chia off for Chad Thach
, and Hwang rotated inside for Mohd Marzuki Khairul
, supposedly to add some much-needed physicality. That did help, but Grilled's bigger problem was that they had to find at least two goals to stay in the competition, and Hwang wasn't a huge help in that respect. Moey wouldn't be either, as his few intelligent touches dwindled to next to nothing together with his stamina, and Teo Chuan Yong
would replace him for the final half-hour.
Credit to the Birds, they never stopped trying, and Mohd Marzuki Khairul
served up a loud warning in the 67th minute as he dutifully chased an apparently-overcooked pass from the left, and had it bounce kindly. The snap finish would be barely reached by Bhole, just enough to divert it off the upright. Kalki Parvathaneni
would then have the ball ripped away from underneath him, as he tried to hold it up in the penalty area, and Atang Mangoye
's attempt in the 73rd minute was just a bit sad.
With time running down, the Birds threw all the stops out, and manufactured perhaps their cleanest opportunity of the half through the efforts of one Damian Hutter
. The Austrian defender revealed a playful side of himself as he danced his way past first one, and then another defender, before laying it off to Kalki Parvathaneni
- who should really have at least hit the target from six yards. It came awkwardly off his shin instead, however, and with that went Grilled's last hopes of advancing.