Much like one of Edu’s weekend Sanlitun forays, our cup run began with a bit of nervousness and trepidation, rapidly ascended into breathtaking displays of skill, daring and vigour, before finally meekly succumbing to the realization that we were overmatched by a taller, fitter, and more elegantly named opponent. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
It began at the Cup draw with Captain Ben, brandishing a red beard and imaginary eye patch, boldly selecting our old nemesis, Lao Hu. What better way to test our rigorous offseason training regimen than a match against the reigning Asia schoolboy champions, who subjected us to a 5-2 embarrassment the last time we played?
When game day arrived we realized that they seemed to have added in height what we added in girth, but we quickly taught them that in football guile is perhaps more important than simple physical ability. We were on them from the kickoff, winning possession and launching a series of attacks which culminated in wily veteran Rowan launching in a free kick, which was headed back across goal by not quite so wily nor so veteran Pikey, and then crashed into goal by blind header specialist Jim So. Ben and Elliott continued to boss the midfield and the dazed youngsters gave up another corner, delicately served up by Jim So for returning citizen Wim to head up for debutant Henry to volley home, 2-0 to us before the match was fifteen minutes gone. We took our foot off the gas a bit and they started to get some pressure on goal, but stand-in keeper Jason indeed stood tall, making several good saves before a nice move by their standout midfielder brought them to 2-1 just before half.
In a prescient move Rowan went back to keeper for the second half and reinforcements arrived just in time, as Mike Zheng gave us some legs for the counter-attack even as we were increasingly on the back foot. Shawn and Thilo were massive (in many ways) in defense, repeatedly holding the schoolboys at bay, but an unlucky deflection on a long range shot found its way into the net and we were 2-2 at the gun. Calm, cool Adam Nowak stepped up under pressure for the first penalty kick and responded by not only missing the goal entirely but also by immediately feigning injury. Not to worry though, as we were impeccable from there out, scoring on every kick. After letting the first four shots in to get the measure of his opponents, once and future keeper Rowan settled on the cunning strategy of giving up most of the goal and then diving in the only direction he could, away from his injured shoulder. It worked beautifully as he saved their final kick, and after Shawn converted for us Rowan used the same ruse to save again and win the match for us, 5-4 on penalty kicks. For his offensive prowess and defensive heroics he was the obvious choice for Man of the Match, and while the sartorially-challenged Henry made a run for Donkey, Adam’s penalty gaffe and lame cover-up could not be denied.
Unfortunately, about the next match, perhaps the less said, the better. Facing premier side Vikings would be challenge enough, but while our side was depleted through injuries their’s was strengthened with ex-proffesionals. Nevertheless, spurred on by Patrick’s somewhat innovative take on a pre-match motivational speech, we charged into battle. Perhaps thinking to emulate Rowan, JD decided to save his diving for the post-game penalties, but the strategy backfired as we were three-nil down after half an hour. We continued to work hard and make our presence felt, with Lee Xiong physical in the midfield and Patrick using any means necessary to ensure no one got by him at the back.
Our effort paid off as we had more of the ball in the second half. Wim and Andy Mo created some chances and Crouchie wreaked his usual havoc up front, but our opponents got another goal in against the run of play and the match finished four-nil to them. Despite the disappointing result, there were some highlights, particularly the return of old boy Ben Woodcock, who flashed both skill and speed, though not in quite equal measure. New boy Jason once again proved his on-pitch prowess with his excellent reading of the game and crunching tackles, deservedly taking Man-of-theMatch honors. Unfortunately his off-pitch judgement proved somewhat lacking, as his post-game fascination with our favorite bottle lady/grandmother/mascot’s delectable bits earned him the rare Man-Donkey Double. Strangely fitting.
While our Cup run may have ended earlier than we hoped, a stellar win, the return to fitness of some vets and the impressive showing by new blood will send us into this week’s season opener with great confidence. Palace!