MANILA, Philippines – The Filipino club football season reaches its climax on Friday, August 28 with a mouthwatering Kaya-Ceres clash for the UFL Cup.
Ceres have already claimed the league title. A victory here will mean they retain the trophy they won over Global in last year’s competition, then known as the UFL Football Alliance League Cup.
Ali Go’s side overcame Loyola 1-0 in last Tuesday’s semi while Kaya needed two comebacks, extra time, and penalties to finally shake off Stallion 3-3 AET (5-4 PSO).
(READ: Ceres wins UFL League with more than just money)
This is a quintessential cup finals showdown between a heavy favorite and a dangerous underdog. This occurs often in cups, which are generally knockout competitions, as compared to league tournaments where a team with the most points in a round-robin format is declared the champ.
Ceres are undeniably one of the finest Filipino football clubs ever assembled. Top-to-bottom they ooze quality.
The Bacolod-based squad is mainly powered by foreign-bred players, but the last line of defense is Cebuano goalie Louie Casas. The pint-sized former Azkal makes up for his small stature with dazzling reflexes and the excellent judgment of a seasoned shot-stopper.
In front of him is Kim Sang Min, perhaps the tallest player in the league, with veteran Juani Guirado as his centerback partner. Victorino Son and Jeffrey Christiaens are the wingbacks, and both are very quick and capable.
Martin Steuble, a new addition this year, brings steel into the center of the midfield. Manny Ott, his central midfield partner, will miss the final after a senseless late yellow in the semifinal gave him two cautions in separate games, enough for a one-game suspension. What made the foul even more galling was that it happened in the center circle, where there was no danger of a goal being scored.
But this being Ceres, they have reinforcements, with coach Ali Go having the luxury of choosing between either Angeles twin or Paul Mulders to take his place. Mulders, recently called back into the national team at the age of 34, is my odds-on pick to get the manager’s nod.
Ceres threaten from the wings as well, with new Spanish signing Bienvenido Marañon on the right and Northern Irishman Orman Okunaiya on the left.
Marañon replaced countryman Adrian Gallardo as one of Ceres’ main weapons. The 29-year-old who toiled in the lower tiers of the Spanish football pyramid is a shifty winger, unlike the more central Gallardo, but he can be very lethal. There’s a bit of Sergio Aguero in his game I think.
The Nigerian-born Okunaiya is one of Ceres’ more interesting stories. The left-sided player came over to Ceres in 2013 and helped them win the Smart PFF club championship that year. Okunaiya suffered a horrific ankle injury while playing with Ballymena United, a top side in Northern Ireland. After a period of rehabilitation he decided to try his luck in the Philippines and hasn’t looked back since.
Okunaiya says he is one of the team’s most prolific players when it comes to assists. He also tells me he has scored 4 goals this season but none more important than the one he speared past Sparks keeper Tommy Trigo on Tuesday for the lone score in the semifinal victory.
“I was just lucky,” says the Ulsterman. “I didn’t even aim.”
The ball was a nasty low left-footed fireball that scampered into the low right corner. Loyola reserve keeper Saba Sadeghi said afterwards that only two keepers in the league, Global’s Roland Sadia, and Stallion Johann Noetzel, might have had the technical ability to stop it.
You be the judge. Watch Okunaiya’s handiwork here.
Having the opportunity to play football brings me so much happiness. Extremely Thankful!Posted by Orman Okunaiya on Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Okunaiya is a philosophical sort, whose Facebook posts generally fall into three categorizes: lyrical riffs about the beauty of the Philippines, zen-like encomiums about the value of humility or sacrifice, and pictures or stories about how he and his team mates have been flogging themselves in training.
Whoever Kaya sends out in the right side of the defense will have to corral Okunaiya, who is pacey and has supreme command of the ball at his feet.
The center of the Ceres attack is a pick-your-poison duo of Patrick Reichelt and Lee Jeong Woo.
Ceres will miss the passing vision and long-range sniping of Ott, but they are so deep it may not matter. Ceres’ well-drilled midfield is great at keeping possession. On Tuesday the Sparks were reduced to oftentimes sitting back and trying to hit on the counterattack because of the paucity of possession.
Kaya will need to play the game of their lives to win, and they know it. The heartbeat of the team is none other than serial Azkals goalscorer, Chris Greatwich.
Although Greatwich has only been with Kaya since 2012, it is hard to imagine the team without his vocal, intense presence at holding mid. Chris will not just be the side’s captain, it appears he is doing a lot of the coaching as well, from inside the park.
2015 saw the departure of Adam Reekie and then Fabian Lewis as head coaches. Greatwich seems to have filled the void well. A Jaworski in cleats, perhaps.
Kaya showed plenty of character on Tuesday. After going down 2-0 to Stallion thanks to a Shirmar Felongco long-range missile, a goal by Diego Barrera and a penalty by OJ Porteria restored parity. A Jordan Mintah extra-time score gave Stallion another lead but Barrera immediately canceled it out, forcing extra time. Kaya were perfect in the shootout, enough to defeat Stallion, whose first kicker, Ian Araneta, had his attempt palmed away by keeper Nick O’Donnell.
“I just guessed,” admitted O’Donnell afterwards about his choice to dive to his right on the spot kick.
The defense of Kaya is anchored, like Ceres, by a veteran, Masanari Omura. His sonorous, horn-like voice can be heard from the back line, providing guidance for his mates. Greatwich sits above him in the formation.
Defender Alfred Osei was sent off for a silly late challenge and will miss the final. Either Kenshiro Daniels pitches in on defense or the versatile Ivorian Patrick Delon Yao is moved around.
OJ Porteria is undeniably gifted, but is sometimes given to fits of freestyling madness that result in subpar decisions at times. If he steps up his game he could be a game changer.
Kaya will probably not play Louis Clark, the English striker who has been a potent performer all season long. The Syracuse grad is nursing a niggling ankle issue and only came late in the semifinal to take one of the penalties, eventually poking in the decider. Clark himself says he will definitely not start and has been unable to train much.
Kaya’s center forward is Tishan Hanley, a native of the Caribbean nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. Unlike Clark, Hanley is no speed demon, but can use his technique and power to coax the ball into the net. He scored a hat trick in a recent cup game against Pachanga.
There are question marks for Kaya. O’Donnell is relatively inexperienced, and this is likely going to be the toughest game of his life. He will need to rekindle the form that helped him lead Ateneo to a UAAP title in 2013. Can Kaya’s midfield somehow pry possession away from Ceres’ maestros in the center of the park? Can Kaya’s wing defense deny the Ceres weapons in the flanks? Can Kaya counterattack themselves or at the very least, stifle Ceres, who are a fine team on the counter?
Kaya is one of the oldest clubs in the UFL, having been in existence since 1996. They have always been one of the country’s best clubs, but they are now a program that is struggling against more moneyed outfits. Amazingly, they have yet to win major silverware in the Philippines’ brave new footballing world. Friday could be their opportunity to right that record.
Discipline and composure could play a key role. There were skirmishes and heated moments in both semifinals. The suspensions caused by Ott and Osei’s indiscretions were head-scratchers. Steuble was hot under the collar with referee Clifford Daypuyat in the semifinal and would do well to rein in his emotions.
UFL Cup finals tend to be close, physical, and entertaining affairs. In 2011 there were two played, with Global bucking an Air Force comeback to win the first one, 3-2. Later in the year the airmen got another bite of the cherry and stunned fancied Loyola 2-0 on goals by Ian Araneta and Yanti Barsales.
Stallion defeated Global in the 2012 final 2-1 during the height of Rufo Sanchez’s powers, and in the following year it was Loyola’s turn in the limelight as the Sparks downed a very game Pachanga team 3-2 in Emperador. Last year Ceres topped Global 2-1, with late Casas save preserving the victory.
Will Ceres cement their status as top dog? Or will Kaya stun the favorites and finally have something for the trophy cabinet? Whatever happens, history will be made on Friday night.
UFL Cup 2015 Championship Match
Ceres vs Kaya – 8:15 pm, Friday, August 28
Rizal Memorial Football Stadium
Next-day delayed telecast on AksyonTV
Loyola vs Stallion 3rd place match at 5:15 pm.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
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