UAAP Football Final 4: Two epic showdowns for the final slots

UAAP Season 78 Men's Football Final Four

2:45 p.m. Thursday, April 28

Rizal Memorial

UP-UST

ADMU-DLSU immediately after

LIVE on ABS-CBN Sports+Action and S+A HD 

The top-seed UP Fighting Maroons men's football team has the best defense in the league, with only 5 goals conceded in 14 matches. This anecdote illustrates just how seriously they take the task of keeping the ball out of the net. 

I do the scripts of the pre-match coverage for ABS-CBN's coverage of UAAP football, and for every match I choose a player to be featured in the pre-game. Last Thursday, for UP's big game against FEU I picked defender Patxi Santos. 

Just before the match kicks off, while I am going over playoff scenarios with the table officials, I get a frantic call from Miky Mirabueno, the member of our production staff in charge of doing the pre-match interview. Patxi doesn't want to be interviewed so we have to do choose another player. We also need a new set of questions. 

Eventually we settle on striker Kintaro Miyagi, and after rushing to the graphics van to change our supers, it all works out. 

After the match, a 1-0 win for the Maroons, I approach the UP team while they are getting attended to by physiotherapists and munching honeydew melon slices as part of their recovery meal. I chat with Santos and assistant coach Popoy Clarino and get the full story. 

It's Clarino who forbade us from talking to Patxi before the game. He apologizes for inconveniencing us and explains that “pag defense, kailangan mag-focus.” He says it's better if we choose midfielders or strikers in the future. 

Yes, that's how far UP's attention to defense goes. The back 4 must be in the zone before kickoff. 

Looking at UP's defensive record one might think that the side packs it in and stays defensive all the time. But nothing could be farther from the truth. 

Anto Gonzales plays an extremely high defensive line. In other words, his back 4 of Lou Rafanan, Santos, Ian Clarino, and Feb Baya like to advance forward together, turning the field where their opponents operate into a wafer-thin sliver of greensward that chokes the life out of their foe's attack. They use the offside rule to their advantage, in effect. This is how they asphyxiated FEU, by giving them so little room to maneuver that the vaunted FEU short-passing game was neutralized. It's a masterpiece of team defensive organization.

UP doesn't park the bus. Instead they set their Maroon-and-white conveyance on a gentle incline above you and slowly run you over with it, inch-by-agonizing inch.

Behind the back four is a a perfect complement: a modern sweeper-keeper, Ace Villanueva, who is not afraid to come out of his area and tidy up loose balls. And another upside of the high line: it's much easier to get everyone rushing forward on counter attacks, since they are so much closer to the opposing goal. 

UST stands in the way

But standing in their way of a finals slot on Thursday are their opponents, fourth-seed UST, the only side among the Final Four cast who UP did not defeat in the regular season. 

UST succumbed to DLSU 4-0 last Thursday, but the squad coach Marjo Allado selected was missing 3 key cogs. Midfielder Karl Bronda was out on cards, and attacking midfielder Ronald Batislaong and defender Raniel Dosano were unused subs. They both were on one yellow card apiece and another caution on Thursday would have rendered them ineligible for the semifinal, so Allado did not field them. 

Batislaong has been on fire, with five goals in the previous three matches before sitting out last week. Allado has moved him up the formation from his previous slot as holding mid. The Air Force man can be a game-changer if given an opportunity to strike. 

Bronda is one of the most creative mids in the league. If the Tigers are to breach UP's high line, he will need to unspool spot-on passes to UST's attackers, (Darwin Busmion, Ronald Batislaong, and AJ Pasion), while they make perfectly-timed runs that keep the assistant referee's flag down. If there is one guy who can do it, it's Bronda. 

Dosano is a tall rookie defender who must step up to shut down UP's promising, but young strikers, Kintaro Miyagi, JB Borlongan, and Kyle Magdato.

Recent history could be on the side of UST. Astonishing fact: among the five goals UP have allowed this season, FOUR have been off UST boots. Three of them were in that wild 3-3 draw to start the second round last March. (Bit of an asterisk on that one, though, as Clarino was suspended for that game and did not play, plus goalie Ace Villanueva was hurt and Anton Yared took his place.) Three days earlier, in the last game of the first round, UST topped UP 1-0 on a Batislaong penalty. 

UP does have a slight advantage: the sense that the memory of fallen team mate Rogie Maglinas is spurring them on to victory. It's hard to beat a team with eleven guys on the pitch plus a twelfth who is there in spirit. 

Thursday's other game is the eternal rivalry between third-seeded Ateneo and second seed De La Salle. These two exchanged wins in the regular season. They met at this stage last year, with DLSU edging the contest on Gelo Diamante's second-half goal. 

One suspects that the game will hinge on the performance of Ateneo's sensational rookie, Jarvey Gayoso, who appears the slight favorite to take the rookie of the year award over Tamaraw Rico Andes. His eleven goals are tied with Paolo Salenga for best in the league. 

Gayoso is the reason why Ateneo is here. He scored the only goal in the Eagles' 1-0 win over FEU and also poked in the winner over DLSU a fortnight ago. You can see it here. 

The left-sided striker also scored the late equalizer in a 3-3 draw with NU. If only one of these goals is not scored, Ateneo finishes outside of the Final Four.

Ateneo skipper Mikko Mabanag will also want to extend his UAAP career with a win. He needs to be a difference-maker in the center of the pitch. 

But De La Salle are a tough, physical and highly motivated team as well, with their own cadre of rookie goalscoring threats in Jed Diamante and Javier Romero-Salas. They have enjoyed balanced scoring this season, with Gelo Diamante, Greggy Yang, Gerald Layumas, and even Jhoguev Ibañez getting on the scoresheet. That surely must please Hans Smit, who is trying to bring a men's football title to Taft Avenue for the first time since 1998. The fact that the match will be held in nearby Rizal Memorial should be a boost.

Last year this video came out on YouTube after the Archers lost to FEU 3-2 in the final. It's an emotional Matt Nierras, DLSU's graduating captain, exhorting the remaining Archers to win it all in Season 78. The first step is beating the Blue and White on Thursday

The UAAP Season 78 Mens Football regular season has been both riveting and unpredictable. The Final Four phase promises more of the same. – Rappler.com 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.