AFC Cup: Can Ceres deliver on the road once again?
In any sport, playing away from home is a challenge. Delayed flights, arduous layovers, obnoxious fans, unfamiliar food, and dodgy dressing rooms are only some of the reasons why visiting teams struggle.
This week Global have the benefit of playing at home in the AFC Cup as they take on JDT in Rizal Memorial on Wednesday. But Ceres must venture out to Malaysia to tackle Felda United at the cavernous Shah Alam stadium outside Kuala Lumpur. It's 80,372 seats may not be filled, but no doubt home support will be strong.
Felda actually plays in the Tun Abdul Razak Stadium 190 kilometers away, but this match will be closer to KL, a huge break already for Ceres. The afternoon kickoff might also deter some working fans from making the trip.
The Busmen are at the midpoint of their 2017 campaign and are undefeated in three matches in this round-robin group stage. They opened the stage with a 1-1 draw at Hanoi, clobbered Tampines at home 5-0, then were held to a goalless standoff in Panaad against this same Felda team. The Filipinos are atop the standings in Group G on five points, level with Hanoi but have the benefit of a better goal difference.
Ceres tends to take road games seriously. According to team manager James Dinsay, AFC Cup teams have assistance on their road expenses two days before every matchday. The club, however, often prefers go three days earlier, with the club footing the bill for the extra day. This time Ceres will fly to Malaysia on Sunday, just two days previous. Dinsay says coach Risto Vidakovic has decided to work on his tactics with his team in Manila for a bit more, especially since he lost training days during the FIFA window.
Vidakovic will be missing some key players to his squad. Manny Ott is suspended for the match on accumulated yellows. Since he was unavailable for the Azkals' game against Nepal last week due to a back injury, he might have skipped this match anyway. Ott's creativity will be sorely missed in the middle of the park.
Kevin Ingreso might not be fit enough for the game. The midfielder is nursing a gimpy hamstring. Offseason acquisition Simone Rota has been training but is likely not going to see action until the PFL begins sometime in late April. He is still recovering from knee injury. Wide player Patrick Reichelt is still far away from being fit. He may start training in June.
Another new pick up for Ceres is Filipino-Iranian-Swede Omid Nazari. The striker is a Filipino passport holder who unfortunately cannot suit up for the Azkals since he has already played for Iran. Nazari is not registered for the AFC Cup but supposedly his name can be added to the list for the knockout stages. Nazari last played in the Philippines for Global. Look for him to terrorize defenses in the PFL, where he can apparently be registered as a Filipino.
Ceres have brought in two new Spaniards into their lineup, Manuel “Super” Herrera, a centerback, and striker Fernando Rodriguez. There is also another Spaniard on their staff, conditioning coach Pepe Losada. The team's Asian import this year is defender Kota Kawase from Japan.
Ceres will need all of these cogs working in harmony if they want to pick up a result in Shah Alam. Reserve goalie Louie Casas, who played in this competition last year, says Malaysian fans can be pretty rough. Last year when the side drew 0-0 at Selangor, Casas said the boisterous Selangor Ultras seemed to intimidate the referee.
Felda sit in the bottom of the table with just two points, but a win at home will revive what has been a disappointing campaign. Only the top two from each group proceed to the knockout stage.
The team will take heart from two facts: they have never lost a road game in the AFC Cup, including a point in the toxic My Dinh stadium against Hanoi this year. Last year they won in Bangladesh and drew in Malaysia and Singapore.
The second fact: their coach knows a thing or two about winning on the road.
Vidakovic, a 48-year old Serbian, played for Real Betis in the Spanish La Liga 120 times between 1994 and 2000. The hard-nosed central defender has fond memories of walking off the Bernabeu, Real Madrid's home turf, with the scoreboard reading 2-0 in favor of his team.
“All the pressure is on the home team,” says the gaffer about playing in a hostile environment. “It's easier for us, (as the away team), because we have less pressure.”
After tangling with Felda, Ceres then entertain Hanoi on April 19 in Bacolod before finishing the group against Tampines Rovers in the Jalan Besar stadium in Singapore. Ceres utility man Carli De Murga certainly has fond memories of that ground. He once scored a first-half hat trick against DPMM there in the Singapore Cup while playing for Global.
But right now the focus is on Felda, who, if not for a Roland Müller penalty save, might have beaten them in Panaad. Vidakovic is unfazed.
“We need to 100% effort and play as a team. Whether we play at home or on the road, we can win if we work for each other.”
AFC Cup schedule
Ceres Negros vs Felda United
Shah Alam, Malaysia
4:45 pm, Tuesday, April 4
LIVE on Fox Sports
Global Cebu vs Johor Darul Ta'zim
Rizal Memorial Stadium
7:30 pm, Wednesday, April 5
LIVE on Fox Sports
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.