Gandhik Cheats Sudden Death
Holland III.11 contestants Padstow Pirates, a subsidiary of Australia's Como Wanderers, met Grilled Birds for the first time in the Sapphire Challenger Cup, having just smashed reobu 3-1 in the league. The navy-and-greys weren't that far away either, and almost dragged a strong Birds selection to extra time, before Gandhik Chitre
saved his grateful teammates the trouble with a late winner.
Having come off three runners-up finishes in Division Three, the Pirates under Swedish winger-coach Steve Persson have long been assessed as one to watch, by the local set. They have not been reinforcing much, with 26 year-old Danish star striker Nichlas Kjøller their last big transfer, for just over S$11 million about a season and a half ago. Kjøller would start today drifting wide right, backed by current national youth midfielder Ng Tse Tze, who made up a very energetic midfield three with Engin Erdi and Norton Galeão.
The Birds led with their usual cup lineup that allowed most of their league regulars a rest, save for Aw Keng Chuan
being pushed up to midfield, Lim An Keng
getting his run at the back, and Ha Qicai
now firmly established as the team's default leader at the back. Of these, however, Hwang Teck Fu
would sadly not last twelve minutes, as he ate a rash sliding challenge by former Jamaican U-20 fullback Selwyn Dowe. Brazilian referee Joaquim Oliveira wouldn't be popular with the Grilled fans for letting Dowe off easy with a yellow card there, as Hwang had to be supported off the pitch.
Mohsen El Khateeb
thus made perhaps his highest-profile appearance ever as he replaced Hwang, and while not quite a like-for-like replacement, Mohsen remained serviceable enough that the Birds' gameplan remained largely unaffected. Some unexpectedly subdued play by Padstow helped there, and Ha Qicai
teased with a massive half-volley from the left side of the box in the 18th minute, only for that to skirt the far post. Ibnou Balde
took it closer in two minutes later, but waited too long to get his shot on, and Austrian goalie Stefan Gratzei had it fully covered.
It was getting a bit frustrating for Grilled, and perhaps the neutrals, with the Birds not exactly able to diversify their approach. The few times that Egemen Dinçer Ferzan
fully utilized the available width were perhaps the best chances they had, and one particularly fine development in the 31st had Lim An Keng
direct it towards the bottom left corner, only for Gratzei to fly across goal in time. He would finally be unable to make the save four minutes on, with Balde placing it far too well then.
1-0 felt like it might be enough, from how the Pirates had declined to make their own incursions, despite holding a respectable 45% of first-half possession. Ng's safety-first approach did not endear him to the purists in the crowd, although it did prevent the Pirates from shipping too many unnecessary chances. Instead, Grilled were still limited to what Ferzan could cook up from the right, such as when he played Paulino Trindade
through after 51 minutes, although the São Tomé winger's lob was not quite good enough to defeat Gratzei.
Padstow's conservative stance paid off in the 68th minute, as Ferzan's efforts turned bad; this was quite undeserved for the Turkish toiler, who had been foremost in Grilled's attacking efforts up to now. After Ferzan had struck a low cross tantalizing across goal to no takers, the Pirates would clear it deep, and who would be there but player-coach Steve Persson, who just about held Ha off before drilling it past Dimitris Germanakos
. Ferzan would not let it get him down as he continued cranking out supplies from the right, but another gem in the 73rd minute was mishit by Chia Kwang Tse
With time running out, and Tian Yonghang
really not wanting to put his players through the wringer, he would retire Chan Ze Han
for Phua Ming Xin
after Chia's miss, which had the armband passed to Ha Qicai
as expected. Gratzei remained the thorn in Grilled's side, though, as what could have been a very comfortable lead failed to materialize, with the inspired custodian stopping superb attempts from Aw and Phua in succession. Germanakos had to be very alert not to give it all away 86 minutes in when Engin Erdi caught Artur Rondot's delivery well on his chest, but some bold goalkeeping forced Erdi to rush his finish wide.
Given that scare, the Birds would probably have taken the draw and extra time about then, but Gandhik Chitre
had other others. Prolific in the cup this season, the 22 year-old had never stopped looking for openings, and he found his when Portuguese sweeper Miguel Carrilho dropped his guard for just a second, two minutes from time. Chitre was through in a flash as Phua threaded the needle on the short pass, and not even Gratzei's nous would be enough to keep Chitre from banging the winner home then.