Davao Aguilas Bellmare vs Kaya Iloilo
5 pm Saturday, October 27
Rizal Memorial Stadium
Tickets P30, P100
Possible Telecast TBD
MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine club football season reaches its climax on Saturday, October 27, with the final of the inaugural Copa Paulino Alcantara of the Philippines Football League.
Davao Aguilas reached this game by thumping JPV Marikina, 6-1, last Sunday in the semis. Watch the highlights here:
In the other semifinal in Iloilo, Kaya outdueled Stallion Laguna 3-2 in a great game filled with excellent goals, 3 from Robert Lopez-Mendy, Kaya's ace striker.
Ceres Negros won the League phase of the PFL season but disappointingly missed out on a Final Four berth this time around after subpar performances in the Copa group stage.
The winner of this match qualifies for the 2019 AFC Cup.
The two sides have taken two different routes to this match. As the old boxing adage goes, “styles make fights,” and this one is set to be a good one.
Davao: shedding a legacy of under-achievement
This is only the second season for the Aguilas, and they have yet to live up to their potential and ambition. Last season they finished second-to-last in the league table. In this year's league they improved to 3rd place but were 10 points adrift of second-place Kaya. That included some cringeworthy results, like a loss to 10-man Stallion and a draw with Global when most of the other teams were routing the then-financially-challenged side.
There are signs that Jeff Cheng's team is now starting to gain some momentum, with some encouraging recent developments on and off the pitch.
Scottish coach Leigh Manson, formerly of Global, is on board, leading the team with Melchor Anzures. The club has splashed the cash and hoovered up the best players from Global as well, like Marco Casambre, Daniel Gadia, Patrick Deyto and Paolo Salenga. They recently announced a partnership with Japanese club Shonan Bellmare as well as plans for a new stadium.
Their first match of the Copa last August was typical of the new positive spirit. Ceres was applying the pressure on Davao in Rizal Memorial with attack after attack early in the match. The Aguilas weathered the storm and stunned the busmen with two Phil Younghusband scores in quick succession in the 27th and 31st. A Jason de Jong goal in the 38th sealed matters as the Aguilas prevailed 3-0.
James Younghusband, one of their leading players, envisions more success on Saturday.
“We have been unbeaten for a few games and we are showing our potential as a club. We have scored a lot of goals but we have also scored some really good team goals. It all adds to our confidence,” says the veteran Azkal.
Younghusband says the influx of players has created higher competition for playing time, which has upped the level of the team. He also gives credit to Manson.
“It's been fantastic, (with Manson.) His communication is really good. He has been honest to the players and gives each a fair opportunity. He always reminds us that there is competition for places and you always have to be at your best.”
Younghusband also gives credit to Kim Sung Min, who scored 4 goals against JPV and 2 in their last group match versus Stallion. The 33-year-old Korean has been with Davao since the start of the season but only recently has started to explode. The big center forward is lethal in the air and has a polished left foot too, perfect compliment to Phil Younghusband, who likes to play deeper in the formation.
“He is coming in on his own, and his communication is getting better,” says James.
The winger also credits the defense with the improved results, but singles out one name.
“I'd give a big shout out to Marco Casambre. He has done very well. He keeps it simple, and is very disciplined. A real team player.”
Casambre is only 19 but has already won one cap for the Azkals in the 2016 Suzuki Cup. He will likely start at left centerback beside Brazilian Wesley Dos Santos.
There will be plenty of respect for Kaya from the Davao side.
“We have only beaten them once this season. Chris (Greatwich) has done a tremendous job, and it will be a difficult game for both teams. It's always difficult playing Kaya,” says Younghusband.
Should Davao win then the Younghusbands would play in the AFC Cup for the first time.
“It's a massive motivation for us,” admits James.
Kaya Iloilo: Can a Moneyball club lift the trophy?
While Davao has the image of being a wealthy club that spends for the best players, Kaya is a franchise of more modest means. This team relies mostly on bang-for-the-buck players and foreigners to thrive with the help of a strong culture of teamwork.
GM Paul Tolentino says that his confidence in the squad is immense.
“I believe in my team. They proved that in the league when they finished behind Ceres in league.”
“We haven't played Davao since they revamped, but we have fared well against them in the past. It will be a difficult game,” continues the former Ateneo standout.
“Davao are strong, they are riding a really good momentum, but I believe in my team.”
Kaya's talisman is Robert Lopez Mendy, a Senegalese striker who is a far cry from the wasteful forward he was when he played for Green Archers United years ago. Now he has become a reliable goalscorer, with an incredible 27 goals in this calendar year, 18 in the league and 9 in the Copa.
Kaya began the season with a 1-2 punch in attack with Ghanaian Jordan Mintah alongside Lopez-Mendy. But Mintah blew out his knee and has been busy rehabbing. Lopez-Mendy has picked up the slack brilliantly.
“A lot that people were asking questions when Jordan went down about what would happen to us,” admits Tolentino.
“Robert stepped up, took on the pressure and performed. We are proud of him. He has worked his butt off since last year and finally he is reaping the rewards. He has proved that he is one of the best, if not THE best striker in the PFL.”
When asked why he has reached peak form, Tolentino says, “he always had it in him." He is comfortable with his teammates. For strikers, an important thing is scoring. When you score, confidence grows.
Perhaps key to a Kaya win will be a good game from Jovin Bedic. The Barotacnon forward/mid has been effective both as a provider and finisher for Iloilo this season. He also had a terrific campaign in the Bangabandhu Cup in Bangladesh with the Azkals. Check out this compendium of goals and assists here:
Fitness might be a concern for Kaya, though.
“A lot of players are injured but they are gutting it out,” admits Tolentino.
“I'm not going to name who.”
Kaya has one player who will likely not take part in the match because of suspension. Eric Giganto is still serving a multi-game suspension for striking Jordan Jarvis of Global in a group game. The team is appealing that ban.
Iloilo welcomed back Camelo Tacusalme, the vastly experienced centerback who was suspended for the semifinal.
Kaya will need to play perfect team football since they don't quite have the star power of Davao's Younghusbands. But Tolentino says there are too many unsung heroes to name. They all must come out to play on Saturday.
The Suzuki Cup is nearly upon us, but Pinoy football fans have one more club match worthy of their attention. It promises to be a cracking game. Styles make fights, and this is one battle that is certain to be full of big punches. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.