Can a shorthanded Ceres Negros capture the ASEAN Zonal title?
Ceres Negros vs Home United
2018 AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Finals Leg 1
Panaad Stadium, Bacolod City
Wednesday, August 1
7:30 pm LIVE on Fox Sports
MANILA, Philippines – Last Wednesday, July 25, Ceres Negros won its second PFL title after downing Global Cebu, 6-1, at the Rizal Memorial Stadium. The victory gave the team enough points to keep second-place Kaya out of contention in the title race with 3 matches to go. (The PFL used a pure league format without a playoffs this season.)
The Busmen donned yellow “back to back” champions t-shirts and posed for pictures as they celebrated another special moment in their glittering history.
But in the press conference afterwards, coach Risto Vidakovic admitted that soon after the post-match dinner, the celebrations would end and the preparation would begin for the next step to regional glory, the AFC Cup. Ceres plays Home United in the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Finals starting this Wednesday, August 1.
Ceres once again qualified out of the group stage to reach the ASEAN Zone semifinals of the AFC Cup, the Asian Football Confederation's second-most prestigious club competition after the AFC Champions League. In the Zonal semis, they beat Yangon United of Myanmar over two legs, 6-5.
However, in the second leg their talismanic attacking mid/striker, Spaniard Bienvenido Marañon, was shown a straight red card and reportedly used abusive language and gestures after scoring a goal. See the match highlights and the incident here:
The AFC has given Marañon a two-game ban which rules him out until the next stage of the competition, the inter-zone semifinals in late August, if Ceres reaches it. North Korean club April 25 Sports Club awaits for that series.
After the first game on August 1, Ceres and Home meet again on August 8 in the Jalan Besar stadium in Singapore.
The loss of Marañon is a blow to the Negrenses, who need the Spaniard's firepower. His 10 goals in the 2019 AFC Cup are tied for first place with Yangon's Sekou Sylla. Last year he disturbed the nets 8 times in the competition.
It might get worse for Ceres. In their last two PFL games, both with Global, Stephan Schröck was in street clothes, hobbled by an ankle injury. He has been practicing since early last week, but is still not sure to play on Wednesday. But the Bundesliga vet is not too worried.
“Home United has to prepare more than we have to,” said Schröck at halftime of the Global game.
“They know that we have a quality squad. We have our own DNA,” added the Filipino-German.
Schröck also praised his suspended teammate but seemed unfazed by his absence.
“Bienve is irreplaceable. His style and his abilities are unbelievable. But our new players like Blake Powell and Curt Dizon have their own qualities.”
Powell, an A-League veteran from Australia, and former Global and Meralco standout Dizon both scored in the two games against Global, which Negros won by a cumulative score of 13-2. They join returning goalie Roland Müller, Paul Mulders, and ex-Global right back Jerry Barbaso among the new Ceres signings in the PFL transfer window.
Mulders, who turns 38 soon, is on his second tour of duty with the Busmen and played a full 90 minute shift last Saturday in the 7-1 win against Cebu. The former Eredivisie player slotted in at holding mid and seemed to turn back the clock with an inspired, composed performance.
Despite actually playing in this AFC Cup earlier for Global, I was told Mulders is available for selection on Wednesday, as are the other new signings.
Squad depth would certainly be a reason for the coach to be confident. Manny Ott is back after suffering a broken eye socket. His brother Mike is a threat, as are the likes of Kevin Ingreso, OJ Porteria, Patrick Reichelt, and Omid Nazari.
“They (Ceres), have played many games without the others, (Marañon and Schröck), so they will give 100%,” asserted the coach.
“Home is a good squad with new players. It will not be easy, but if we are motivated then there is a big chance of winning.”
Ceres has enjoyed a bit of a rivalry with this Singaporean club of late. Last year they faced them at this stage of the AFC Cup and won 3-2 over two legs. This year the two clubs were drawn in the group together, with Home winning the series with a 1-1 draw in Panaad and a 2-0 loss in Singapore.
Like Ceres, the Protectors, as they are dubbed, have brought in an Australian attacker to boost the squad. Isaka Cernak is an A-league veteran who brings plenty of experience at the attacking midfielder position.
Cernak replaces French winger Sirina Camara, whose season ended last June 6 with an ACL injury sustained in an S-League match.
Home also features two veteran strikers in Hafiz Nor and Shahril Ishak. The Ceres defense of Carlie De Murga and Amani Aguinaldo will need to be at their best to keep them off the scoresheet.
Ceres will also need the help of their home support. As usual, the club has prepared for this match early, with promotional efforts starting as early as June, with billboards, streamers, and even a one-minute TV commercial that runs in the Bacolod-based Island Living channel. Watch it here.
According to club administrator Nicolas Golez, Bacolodnons often pack Panaad stadium with as many as 7,000 fans, significantly more than the attendance at PFL games.
The club has also spruced up their home ground. Golez says they grabbed the mould for the current seating in the Panaad grandstand and, with the workforce from their bus fabrication operations, churned out over 5,000 brand-new seats, which they installed in the bleachers. Now the entire stadium is ringed with proper, individual seating.
Ceres used to rent cranes with additional lights for big matches. Now they have installed new permanent lighting towers that, along with the existing lights, could offer up to 1400 lux of shine, well past the minimum level for television broadcast.
Azkals can enjoy the refurbished stadium later in the year, when the Philippines hosts Singapore in the AFF Suzuki Cup on November 13. On November 21, the Azkals entertain Thailand.
But this week Ceres has the spotlight. And despite all the hindrances, the Bacolod faithful will want nothing less than a convincing win to keep their AFC Cup campaign alive. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.