DUMAGUETE CITY, Philippines - The battle was so close, penalties were needed to settle the score.
Tagged as the battle of the darkhorses, MIMAROPA proved to be the bigger surprise package after they beat fiery Cotabato Region in a tightly contested match that was eventually settled in a penalty shootout, 4-3.
Britz Manzo, MIMAROPA's footballer who insisted to play for his region despite an injury, opened the scoring with a 33rd minute composed strike at the bottom left corner.
The stunning goal was a thing of beauty with Manzo dribbling the ball past 2 defenders before shooting it past the Cotabato Region goalkeeper for the opening score.
In the second match, Central Visayas leaned on a brace by substitute Joseph Felicida to squeak past defending champion NCR, 2-1.
The goal put MIMAROPA ahead in the opening half of the match and sparked hope to their first ever finals appearance in recent memory. The region's highest finish in the tournament in recent year's is last year's 3rd place campaign.
Despite the first half goal by Manzo, MIMAROPA was caught in the back foot in the majority of the half. The mostly Romblon and Puerto Princesa-based booters relied on counterattacks with the blazing speed of talismanic winger Jayson Rafol.
Cotabato Region almost scored an equalizer in the 38th minute after J. Peril's attempt hit the crossbar. The attempt came from a beautiful passing sequence from the SOCCSKSARGEN booters in the box.
MIMAROPA showed solid defending and lethal counterattacking in the first half, while Cotabato Region showed excellent possession football but lacked sting in the attacking third.
Second half equalizer
Down 1-0 in the first half, Cotabato Region went full throttle at the opening whistle of the second half.
After several attempts coming from the wings, Cotabato Region finally drilled its equalizer from a clinical finish by Steven Anotado.
Receiving a potent cross from his teammate, Anotado handled the ball well inside the box and performed a one-two passing scheme with a teammate. The return pass saw Anotado and the MIMAROPA GK one-on-one. The SOCCSKSARGEN booter beat the keeper with an easy tap in the goal.
MIMAROPA tried to salvage the winning goal with relentless attacks from skipper Jopridale Molino with a perfectly chested ball, landing on his feet. The strike, however, was inches off the far post.
The game ended, 1-1.
With the game ending in a draw in regulation time, the two teams settled the score with a penalty shootout with both goalkeepers pushed to showcase their skill.
MIMAROPA skipper Molino and Fallaria scored the first two penalties for their region, while J. Feril scored the penalty for SOCCSKSARGEN.
Standing tall for his teammates, MIMAROPA goalkeeper J. Dalida, saved Saling's penalty for Cotabato Region to keep his region on top.
The next two penalties for both teams were converted. Leon Hagedorn and J. Rafol scored for MIMAROPA while Steven Anotado and Cabalianga scored for Cotabato Region to bring the score within striking distance, 4-3.
The last two strikes between the last two players from both sides proved to be the deciding factor. In the penalty strike that will assure MIMAROPA's finals appearance, Marino fell short after his penalty went wide left.
With the suddent turn of events, Stephen Anotado's strike will decide the fate of the Cotabato Region's booters in the campaign for gold. But Anotado's strike went wide right.
The miss assured MIMAROPA's first finals appearance in recent memory.
MIMAROPA will face 2012 runner-up Central Visayas on Saturday, April 27, for the finals game in the Palarong Pambansa 2013 football event.
Tune in to get the final results, highlights and statistics of the finals game. - Rappler.com