AFC Cup ASEAN Zone semifinals
Global Cebu vs Home United
7:30 pm Tuesday, May 16
Rizal Memorial Stadium
LIVE on Fox Sports
Johor Darul Ta'zim vs Ceres Negros
8:45 pm Wednesday, May 17
Stadium Tan Sri Dato' Haji Yunos, Johor Baru, Malaysia
LIVE on Fox Sports 1
This week Ceres and Global will attempt to go where no Filipino club has gone before: beyond the first knockout stage of the AFC Cup.
Last year Ceres and Kaya were the two Filipino clubs who reached the knockout stage. But both stumbled at that hurdle, with Kaya getting walloped by Malaysian powerhouse Johor Darul Ta'zim and Ceres falling at home to Hong Kong outfit South China.
The format is different this year, with the top 4 ASEAN clubs from the group stage in one bracket, and the ties are now two-legged aggregate goals contests at this phase instead of one match.
After this week's games Global will face Home United in Singapore on the 30th of May and Ceres hosts JDT in Panaad the day after. The series winners proceed to the two-legged ASEAN zone finals, which will be between the two Filipino teams if they both win.
Global is riding high. The club representing Cebu in the PFL won Group F with 15 points, the most of any ASEAN side. They also are still enjoying the glow of a pulsating home upset of JDT last month. That defeat against the Malaysian giants and 2015 AFC Cup champs will give them plenty of confidence.
In their last competitive match two weekends ago they beat JPV Marikina 2-1 in their PFL opener.
But Global have some issues: Brazilian central defender Wesley Dos Santos is unavailable for this match because of accumulated yellow cards. That will likely mean that Dennis Villanueva will scoot back from central mid to partner Amani Aguinaldo in the heart of the defense.
Misagh Bahadoran is reportedly unlikely to start. He is still recovering from a knee injury. But if the Azkal is anywhere in the vicinity of 70-80% it is likely he will have a run-out on Tuesday.
The other concern is the sudden departure of coach Toshiaki Imai. The avuncular Japanese veteran guided Global into the knockout stage but has abruptly returned to his homeland.
Assistant coach Marjo Allado will likely be the interim head coach on Tuesday but Singaporean mentor Akbar Nawas, a former Tampines Rovers coach, will serve as technical consultant on a short-term basis according to this report.
Global has been changing coaches often of late. They began the 2016 season with Leigh Manson at the helm. Then John Burridge replaced the Scot near the end of the championship season. Burridge left soon after, and Kenichi Yatsuhashi came in but lasted a week and half before Imai arrived in January. Counting Allado, that is five coaches in less than a year.
But Global veteran Matt Hartmann is unfazed.
“Team spirit is high and everyone is enjoying and training well. We got the highest point in all 3 (ASEAN) groups so we are confident going into the semis.”
Hartmann can count on stars like Shu Sasaki, Darryl Roberts and Pika Minegishi on his team but he gives credit to one unsung her for the team's success.
“My personal standout is Jerry Barbaso,” says Hartmann. “All his hard work often goes unnoticed. He's a key player and doesn't get enough credit to be honest.”
Barbaso, the right back from Dipolog, has been with Global ever since the early days of the UFL.
Global's opponents Home United are currently third in their domestic competition, the S League. They saw an 7-game unbeaten streak end last weekend with a 3-2 loss to Tampines Rovers. They are captained by Singapore international goalie Hassan Sunny.
Ceres have fewer apparent issues. According to team officials they are at full strength with no injuries nor suspensions.
AFC Cup allows the insertion of new players into the roster but only for the ASEAN zone final, according to team manager James Dinsay. That means their new pick up, striker Omid Nazari, cannot yet be fielded for these two matches against JDT. Nazari made his debut for the busmen on May 6 in their inaugural PFL game, a battling 1-1 draw at Kaya Makati.
The lynchpin of the Negrense team is midfielder Manny Ott. When he was suspended for the away group game against Felda United in April the team succumbed to a 3-0 defeat. But since then Ceres has turned up the heat with a 6-2 home thrashing of Hanoi and a handsome 4-2 win over Tampines in Singapore earlier this month.
As this excellent analysis from the AFC website shows, Ott's command of the center of the park is crucial to the team's success.
But Ceres will need to trot out their A Game against the wealthy Malaysian powerhouse that, as usual, is lording it over the Malaysian Super League standings with 27 points from 12 matches, 6 clear of Pahang, the second-place club.
Their Argentinian striker, Gabriel Guerra, has found the next 7 times in this AFC Cup campaign, tied for best in the competition alongside Ceres forward Bienve Marañon. The Spaniard will need to be on song for the Bacolod-based side along with Iain Ramsay and all the other Ceres weapons.
Ceres will also need to recapture their winning ways on the road. That loss to Felda in April was their first ever on the road in actual AFC Cup play. (They did lose in Maldives once in a qualifying playoff previously.)
JDT's home ground will no doubt be packed with their rabid fans who are used to seeing them win there. This year the Southern Tigers went 3-0 at home in the AFC Cup, allowing just one goal and scoring 10. Global were roughed up there 4-0 in March.
The task is daunting, but Global and Ceres can't be counted out. – Rappler.com
Disclosure: Bob Guerrero is the media officer for FC Meralco Manila.