Ceres takes another step forward in AFC Cup

Bob Guerrero
Ceres takes another step forward in AFC Cup
Ceres had every reason not to beat Tampines Rovers but still managed to gut out 3 points to move to the top of their group

BACOLOD, Philippines – Ceres gutted out a huge 3 points on a rainy Tuesday night, April 12 over Tampines Rovers, 2-1, in Bacolod to boost their AFC Cup campaign.  

Ceres won despite plenty of excuses not to. This team has no shortage of injuries. Stephan Schrock was “50-50” going into the match, according to Ceres coach Frank Muescan in the pre-match press conference. The midfielder dressed but did not play. Kevin Ingreso is still out with knee issues. Martin Steuble and Manny Ott reportedly recovered from illness to start. Jeff Christians did not start, and may also be dinged. Juani Guirado was also on the way back to fitness. Orman Okunaiya is another player in sick bay. 

Ceres came from a bruising UFL Cup semifinal victory over Kaya last Saturday, which went to penalties. For sure they could have felt bone-weary going into this game.

And yet Ceres did enough to get the win. It’s a testament to the team’s depth and heart that they managed to hack out the 3 points. 

The win puts them atop the group with two matches remaining, one of them a home game against the weakest team in the pool, Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi, in May. With 8 points, Ceres would need a calamitous stumble to miss the knockout stage.  

The visitors shot themselves in the foot with poor discipline

This match wasn’t just won by Ceres, it was also lost by Tampines. The first penalty was a handball, with Kwon Jun’s arm in a relatively natural position, but the foul nonetheless had to be given. The second penalty was the result of an even more egregious foul, with Adrian Gallardo getting a rear-naked choke from a Tampines defender. Both spot kicks were dispatched with little drama. 

Part of being a winning team is keeping discipline and avoiding silly fouls and cards. Tampines out-fouled Ceres 15-5. It can be a reflection of the Rivers’ physical nature but perhaps also a by-product of Ceres’ tactical and technical superiority on the night. 

Fixture congestion played a part in the game

In most football countries clubs play more than one competition at a time. The bread-and-butter is the league, but domestic and international cups are also on the schedule. In England a good club could play in as many as four competitions at once, the league, the FA Cup, the League Cup, and a European tournament like the UEFA Champions League or the Europa Cup. 

The different tournaments are all properly scheduled, with League matches typically on weekends and Cup games in midweek. but wear and tear does add up, even when you have a big squad of 23 or more players.  

It’s a similar story with Tuesday night’s protagonists. Ceres is playing in the UFL Cup while also joining the AFC Cup. The UFL League begins soon and that will also overlap with AFC Cup action. Meanwhile Tampines are in the S.League while the AFC Cup is ongoing.  

Eyebrows were raised when Stags coach Varadaraju Sundramoorthy left the team’s big guns, Jermaine Pennant, Jordan Webb, and Billy Mehmet, off the starting eleven. Webb and Mehmet were introduced at halftime, Pennant later on.  

Afterwards I interviewed Sundramoorthy and asked him why they started without their best attackers. He mentioned the high volume of matches on the calendar as the reason why he did not max out his stars.  

Tampines, possibly Singapore’s richest and most ambitious club, are second in the S.League standings, level with the farm team of Japanese side Albirex Niigata on points but with an inferior goal difference. (Rovers does have a game in hand.) The Stags know they need to win the league to give them a chance at Asian club competition next year, so the S.League is vital. Plus, Tampines’ next opponent in the S.League this Saturday is none other than Albirex Niigata. So the gaffer made a pragmatic choice and sacrificed a better chance of winning this game to keep his star men fresh for the weekend’s big league clash. It’s an understandable choice. Tampines, with two wins and a draw from three matches going into Tuesday, are still in decent shape at 7 points. 

Ceres also have a massive game on Saturday, the UFL Cup final versus Global. But unlike Tampines, Frank Muescan went all guns blazing on Tuesday, playing his best available men. Again, understandable, since they were playing at home. But now Ceres faces the threat of being less energetic than Global on Saturday night. Global haven’t played since their 2-0 win over Stallion in the semis last Saturday. The UFL Cup is also a qualifier for the AFC Cup. The team that lifts the UFL Cup gets at least a playoff slot for next year’s AFC Cup. 

These are tough choices that all managers must make with limited resources. 

The back story of the hosting of his game is remarkable in itself

This match was actually going to be held in Manila. The game clashed with the annual Panaad festival, which takes place in and around the stadium hence the plan to play the game in Rizal Memorial. But because of the game and other reasons, the start of the festival was moved back a few days, allowing the match to push through on Ceres’ real home turf. 

The organizers pulled out all the stops to ensure a terrific game. To help the lights reach the recommended 1200 lux level of brightness, 36 new 1500-watt lights were brought into the stadium and mounted on 3 rented cranes. Four generator sets were on hand to power everything.

Nicholas Golez, the deputy chairman of the Local Organizing Committee for the game, said that before the Selangor game in February, the organizers only had ten days to get the field match-ready. There was even a huge event involving masses of dancers on the grass before the game. But this time they had 3 weeks to coax the field into shape. Groundskeepers rolled and aerated the grass and watered it regularly. No one was allowed to play or train on it leading until the night before the match. The result was a remarkable lush, flat surface that was not too hard underfoot when I inspected it before kickoff. I have been going to Panaad since 2005 and have never seen the pitch in better shape. 

Naturally the torrential rain softened the pristine carpet, and by the final whistle it was royally chewed up. There were more divots than on Amen Corner in Augusta National after the fourth round of the Masters. No doubt it will be rested before the next match on May 10. 

Once again Bacolod was adorned with hundreds of posters and billboards advertising the game. On some major streets there were posters on every corner for blocks on end. It was impossible to live in Bacolod and not be aware of the contest. Golez said they began distributing tickets on Friday morning and had run out in an hour. The stadium seats about 8000. 

Props to Ceres boss Leo Rey Yanson, Negros Occidental Football Association head Ricky Yanson, and the local and provincial governments for their terrific behind-the-scenes work in getting the match organized.  

Bacolod and Negros have momentum on their side in grassroots development

I had a chat with Norman Fegidero before the game. Fegidero is one of the best players Negros Occidental has ever produced. The striker scored the goal that beat Malaysia 1-0 in the SEA Games and went on to coach the national team for a spell.  

Coach Nonoy is involved with the University of St. La Salle football program that is also connected to Ceres. Once upon a time USLS had a heated rivalry with West Negros University in football. When West Negros University was bought by STI the football program was suspended, but there is talk that it could be revived. Another school in Bacolod, UNO-R, also hs a football team, but USLS is stronger by far.  

Fegidero says that Negros Occidental’s other hotbed, San Carlos City, does have at least one collegiate team that can hang with USLS. It would be great to see a Negros-wide collegiate league involving schools from Bacolod, San Carlos, Dumaguete, Bayawan, and other towns with university-level teams.  

Meanwhile the annual Ceres Cup age-group 7-a-side festival is set for May 20-21. It attracted an astonishing 405 teams last year and it could have even more this year. Hopefully a regular youth league set-up will follow. Many football experts consider leagues to be a superior developmental tool over one day festival tournaments. 

No doubt many of the kids who will participate in the Ceres Cup will be inspired by Tuesday’s performance from their kuyas in the Ceres senior team. Ceres, with this result, continued the Philippines’ remarkable rise up the footballing ladder.

And there was even more good news in the other AFC Cup game that night: Kaya beat Balestier Khalsa 3-0 to top their group as well. – Rappler.com

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.

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