Da Jia was a seriously hot place to be on Sunday. With several Lions having taken a weekend off in Kenting, which – it must be said – is more than likely where most other players would have preferred to be given the fantastic sunshine, and various others not available for multiple reasons, not least of which was a certain German who was suspended due to being booked three times this season, it was a truly barebones Red Lions squad which assembled for the lunchtime kick off against the Celts, knowing that a point would secure second place, regardless of the result next weekend against Carnegies.
The Saturday had been spent with Captain “Oh Captain my Captain” Cooke and Mao on the phone every 5 minutes, trying to make sure that the Lions had a full team. It really was not known who would be in, and who would not, but gradually the Lions had enough confirmations to ensure a full team would be fielded against the Celts.
To Sunday then. With the sun beating down, the only escape from the relentless heat was the shade of the trees at the edge of the pitches, and that is where the Red Lions assembled for the Captain’s team talk. With Morten and Liam turning up, and the return of Paddy and even a rumour of Majo (who failed to materialise – proving that yet another Red Lion is well and truly under the thumb), the Lions were confident that there would be not just a full team, but also substitutes, and so it turned out.
The Lions started off in a 4-3-3 formation, with Barras and Anthony in central defence, Charles and Paddy at full back, Mirko in the holding midfield role, Fred and the Polack in central midfield, and the unusual combination of Thomas, Tim “Brutus” Brown and … errr…. Clovis in the attacking line. Your humble chronicler was in goal.
After several poor performances recently, there was no room for complacency, and the Lions raced out of the blocks to take an early lead. The ball found its way to Mao, who pumped a long ball up the field, which bounced over the first defender, Clovis then challenged the second and with Thomas running on for an anticipated pass, the ball went past both defender and goalkeeper giving Thomas the simplest of tap ins for a Red Lions lead after less than a minute.
Some good passing was taking place all across the field, with Paddy and Liam getting stuck in and making some important challenges, Mirko doing a sterling job in the centre of midfield, and Fred finding lots of space on a regular basis. If only the Lions had actually passed to him.
With the Celts recovering after being a little stunned from the early opening goal, the game was a midfield tussle, with very few opportunities for goals from either team in the opening quarter, and with the Red Lions defensive team doing a sterling job, the Celts attack was well marshalled at all times.
Through the centre though, the Celts did launch one attack, the ball looking like perhaps it might not make it to Mao in the Lions goal area, and with Barras shielding, and Duncan on the prowl, it was a potential howler in the making, but the Lions keeper managed to hold the ball, and the Lions cleared.
Shortly afterwards, Celts John was given a yellow card for a nothing tackle. The Lions were as surprised by this decision as the Celts were livid, with John asking – quite correctly – what the yellow was for, and Russell looking on in disbelief.
As the water break approached, the ball was whipped on from the Celts right wing, Mao calling for the ball and making the catch from the cross, at the same time taking out Paddy – not for the first time – leaving him crumpled and winded on the floor. Mao threw the ball out of play, the ref blew the whistle, and all players trundled off the pitch in search of water.
The second period was more of the same, with very few attacking chances for either team, neither goalkeeper really troubled, although Thomas perhaps should have done better with a couple of chances that he hit off target.
The Lions changed things round a little with the Polack coming off for a while, Morten joining the fray, all players putting in 100% effort, the Celts not giving much in the way of space or time to settle. One free kick from Barras was hit high over the bar, but the ding-dong midfield battle was experiencing a stalemate, both teams cancelling each other out well.
So half time arrived with no more action of note, no more goal-scoring chances, both teams heading off to find some shade, some temporary respite from this searing heat. Captain Cooke changed the formation to a 4-4-2 so the Lions could exploit the wings a bit better, find some more space, and maybe get that second goal to give them a little more breathing space, and secure the three points.
The third period though saw a resurgent Celts team, and the Lions struggled a little, although again any danger that our opponents created was snuffed out by a Lions defence that this week was more like the well oiled machine that went almost 500 minutes last season without conceding. The Celts had an appeal for a handball in the area turned down, more than likely because it was impossible for anyone to see it, given the amount of bodies around the ball, as the Lions did their utmost to clear the ball, the Celts surging forwards looking for the equalising goal. The one shot that was on target was hit hard and low, but also aimed straight at Mao.
Shortly afterwards, in what was to be the Celts best opportunity of the game to score, the attacker made it past the Lions defence, waited for Mao to go to ground, which he did, then shot, hitting the post and going off for a goal kick. The Lions recovered well from this, and – with the Polack setting up Thomas for what looked like a simple shot in to the net – the Celts keeper made a remarkable reflex save to keep his team in the game, just a single goal down.
The same pair then combined with a cheeky corner, Thomas with plenty of time and space as he entered the penalty area from the left, but his shot went wide. The Celts too had their chances, with one attacker hitting a powerful drive high and wide, with Tim “Brutus” Brown getting bundled over in the process, helped back to his feet by Paddy.
At the final water break, the Lions team was urged to keep going, keep looking for that second goal, keep pushing. And that is exactly what they did. For the opening few minutes, it was the Celts goal which was under siege, another Lions goal looking extremely likely. The whole Lions team was fighting hard, Clovis never stopped running and played in some nice passes, Fred always looking for the ball and distributing well. Mirko did an excellent support job, and Thomas and Polack combined well up front, the Polack hitting the bar after getting behind his man, Clovis-style.
Then a cross came in from the Lions left wing, Thomas volleying nicely to score his second of the game, and 14th of the season. The Lions were playing this final period in the Celts half, once more just about any danger being snuffed out by the defenders who ran their socks off.
The call came in from the sidelines – “Barras – clean sheet”, the captain making sure that there was no let up from the Lions, and the call was heeded.
In the dying moments though, it was the Celts who forced a corner after Mao made a save low to his right, the Lions keeper then also holding the cross as it came in. As the ball was cleared, the referee blew the whistle, signalling the end of the game, the well deserved three points won by the Red Lions cementing second place in the league as the first round of games enters its final weekend before the summer break.
Thanks must go to all players who turned up to play – every single player ended the game running on empty, the ice cold Taiwan Beers brought to the pitch by Tim “Brutus” Brown were most welcome, as Ant showed off his fine physique, and especially his nipples, through his soaking, skin-tight Adidas top, getting Clovis all excited in the process.
So next weekend sees the big one – Red Lions vs Carnegies, and with both teams having secured a play-off berth, this is for pride. And as it is Matt’s final Red Lions game before he leaves the island, let’s send him off with a victory.