UAAP Football Final Preview: Can UP seal the deal?
UAAP Season 78 Football Finals
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Rizal Memorial Football Stadium
Women's Championship Match, 3:00 pm
UP vs DLSU
Men's Championship Match, 5:30 pm
UP vs Ateneo
Both matches LIVE on ABS-CBN Sports+Action and S+A HD Ch. 166
The UAAP Season 78 Men's football competition will conclude on Thursday, May 5. Either league-leading UP caps an outstanding season or Ateneo rides its wave of good play towards a first title since 2013.
This is a rematch of the Season 75 final series. Back then, the championship was decided by a best-of-3 series instead of the one game we have now. A Blue Eagles team backstopped by goalie Nick O'Donnell and featuring Cocoy Marcelino marshaling the backline swept UP in two games, both via penalty shootouts.
Many of those players who lifted that trophy for Ateneo are gone. In fact O'Donnell, Jico Noel, and Val Calvo all departed before Season 76 could begin. But the mercurial Mikko Mabanag and Carlo Liay are holdovers from that squad, and their championship experience showed when the pair combined for the goal against DLSU in the semifinal last Thurday.
“This is a really resilient team,” marvels Marcelino. “They have defied the odds despite being a young team.”
Marcelino appreciates the newfound form of the defense, which has noticeably stiffened of late after leaking in plenty of goals early on.
“Jayra (Rocha) is a rock at the back, Xavi (Alcuaz) has blossomed into a perfect partner for him, and with Rafi Lipardo getting his groove at the right, this has enabled them to be a very effective backline,” says Marcelino.
Kendall Colet completed the back 4 last Thursday, which only allowed Kenn James' net to ripple when Gelo Diamante unleashed a world-class strike from outside the box. (Of course the Ateneo goal was disturbed 4 times later on, but in the penalty shootout.)
After just gaining 9 points in the first round, the Blue Eagles picked up 16 in the second. Ateneo coach Jaypee Merida told me that he finally settled on this quartet on defense, and as they gelled, the team's fortunes had risen with them.
But the Eagles must learn to pierce the Maroons defense, the stingiest in the league, with only 5 concessions all season long. They have two ways of doing it. The first is to play through-balls that beat UP's vaunted high defensive line. The onus is on Mabanag and Liay to release the passes and for Jarvey Gayoso and the other Ateneo attackers to make the perfectly-timed runs to latch on to them.
The second is off set pieces, especially corner kicks. Alcuaz and Rocha look like they walked into the lineup off Ateneo's B team hoops squad, since both are around 6'2”. They could cause havoc in the box with their aerial advantage.
One of my memories of Ateneo in the regular season is beating NU 3-1 with two headers off set pieces. This could be their savior.
But UP's own defense is a tough nut to crack. The 3-0 win over UST last Thursday is the twelfth clean sheet this season. Lou Rafanan is the left back, Patxi Santos and Ian Clarino man the middle, and Feb Baya patrols the right flank.
Coach Anto Gonzales says that Patxi has been the fulcrum of the defense, organizing and communicating. This is key for a defensive outfit that wants to the assistant referee to work his biceps raising that flag all day long.
The concern for UP is that the 3-0 win over the Tigers was an outlier. This team usually has difficulty finding the back of the net. Case in point: when they played bottom side UE in the second round, they only won 1-0. That means the Maroons are hardly ever building a cushion. On Thursday, they will count on their superb fitness to strike on counters.
UP will take heart in one fact though: Jarvey Gayoso, Ateneo's sensational rookie scoring machine, (11 goals), is still suffering from an ankle sprain sustained in the semi versus DLSU. The kid has yet to train with the side since that game, and it's still unknown if he will play in the title game.
UP swept the season series with Ateneo, winning both matches 1-0. Despite the narrow scoreline, the Maroons dominated both contests. The scorelines flattered the Blue Eagles.
A title for Gonzales would be his fourth in men's play. He claimed back-to-back crowns in 2011 and 2012 with Jinggoy Valmayor in his quiver. But in the past two years, FEU has played Moby Dick to his Captain Ahab, scuppering his title drives in the finals two years ago, and in the semis last year. But Far Eastern underperformed this year without the injured Nano Amita, and just missed out on a Final Four berth.
Gonzales also now coaches the UP women's team, which is playing the Lady Archers in the women's title game. Top-seed DLSU has rampaged through Season 78 with terrific contributions from Sara Castañeda and rookie striker Shannon Arthur, the league's leading scorer. UP is without the inspirational Kali Navea-Huff, who injured her knee. Mary Rose Obra and Cristina De Los Reyes will need to provide the leadership if the UPWFT is to win their first-ever UAAP title.
DLSU, coached by Hans Smit, won the first round match 2-0 but were held to a 2-2 standoff in the second round.
UP will need both teams to shine if they want a double celebration. But in the men's side, Ateneo stands in their way. The Blue Eagles can take some heart in the English Premier League title sealed by unfashionable Leicester City last Tuesday. Leicester, like Ateneo, plays in a shimmering shade of royal blue. They too, have their own fairy tale story. But UP will do their best to make the clock strike midnight on Thursday afternoon. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.