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FC Tokyo: Ceres-Negros’ toughest hurdle yet

Ceres-Negros may have achieved a monumental win against Thai club Port FC to book their place in the AFC Champions League 2020 playoff match but awaiting the busmen is probably their most difficult challenge yet: FC Tokyo.

Here’s a brief background on FC Tokyo focusing more on the club’s past season form and achievements and which players to watch out for.

FC Tokyo’s 2019 campaign

Despite coming short from winning the J1 title, the capital-based club had a stellar domestic league campaign last year finishing second (their best ever achievement since winning J2 and the Emperor’s Cup back in 2011, and returning to the top-flight).

For the most part of the 2019 season, from Week 8 to Week 27, FC Tokyo had led the league standings, until relinquishing their seat at the summit and struggling to regain it for good.

In conclusion, FC Tokyo finished the 2019 season with 64 points from 19 wins, 7 draws, and 8 losses – a total that was just six points shy from eventual league champions Yokohama F. Marinos.

A talented, dangerous squad

At the post-season J.League awards, officials have chosen six players from FC Tokyo as part of the season’s “Best XI” namely, Akihiro Hayashi (GK), Sei Muroya (DF), Masato Morishige (DF), Kento Hashimoto (MF), Kensuke Nagai (FW), and Diego Oliveira (FW/ST).

Out of the six players who received the end-of-season plaudits, striker Diego Oliveira proved to be a reliable target-man in his second season for the club by notching 14 goals which were good enough to be tied at second-best in the entire J1.

The fact that six players from the club made it to the standout players’ squad for the season speaks volumes of the capability that head coach Kenta Hasegawa has under his disposal. Add to those some of additional key players in the squad such as captain Keigo Higashi, Yojiro Takahagi, Kyosuke Tagawa, Tsuyoshi Watanabe, and a trio of Brazilian midfielders in their ranks, FC Tokyo indeed has a very imposing squad.

What are Ceres-Negros chances?

On paper: Slim. Very!

But it doesn’t mean that it’s already a lost cause for Ceres-Negros’ 13th destination in their Asian football odyssey (not at all!), as the Philippines’ league and cup champions have the tools to come up with a decent challenge and hopefully a surprise upset.

Even though Japan has a much better and matured football program, which includes its league system, it is to note that FC Tokyo, other than preseason friendlies, has yet to play a competitive fixture. This situation, similar to the to the previous match against Port FC, could be something that the busmen can exploit.

And given that Ceres-Negros are heading into this match as clear underdogs, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain – something that head coach Risto Vidakovic could take advantage of in motivating his wards.

Whoever will start for Ceres (with or without without talismanic midfielder and captain Stephan Schröck, due to card accumulation), they should bring with them and lay their best ever game on to the pitch of the Ajinomoto Stadium. If they ever execute that to a tee, then they have a good chance of achieving their greatest milestone in club history: Breaking through Asia’s biggest league in international club football – the AFC Champions League!

FC Tokyo vs Ceres-Negros FC AFC Champions League qualification playoff match will kick-off on January 28, 2020 at 7PM local time (6PM Philippine Time) and will be shown live on Philippine cable TV at FOX Sports 2.

Photo credit (Ajinomoto/Tokyo Stadium): FC Tokyo Facebook page

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OPINION: Ceres-Negros win ACL2020 campaign opener but concerns arise

Ceres-Negros FC pulled off possibly the best start early in its match against Shan United in the AFC Champions League Preliminary Stage, but a close final score showed concerns later in the tie as they head into their next challenge against a possibly much tougher Port FC.

As the Philippine domestic double champions continue their undefeated run and head to Bangkok in a week’s time to face Thailand’s domestic cup winners, here are some points of discussion on the busmen’s strengths and possible weaknesses to address as they bid to go further in their Champions League qualification campaign.

Immense frontline capability

Ceres-Negros showed their attacking might during their match against the Burmese champions as they dominated possession and peppered the visitors with attempts for the most part.

Robert Lopez Mendy, and Bienvenido Marañon got their goals, proving their striking ability for the busmen. With the additional firepower coming from attack-minded players such as Mike Ott and OJ Porteria (who also found the back of the net on top of a man of the match performance), and the creativity provided by Stephan Schröck and Hikaru Minegishi, Ceres were able to supply a sustained level of attacking verve and options that proved crucial in registering the goals they needed to get the required result.

Add to the fact that several options in attack and midfield ended up unused during the tie with the likes of creative midfielder Dylan de Bruycker and highly rated forward Mark Hartmann not seeing action in the fixture, shows that head coach Risto Vidakovic still has something up his sleeves heading into their next challenge in Thailand.

Seamless defense to attack transition

The busmen also demonstrated their signature knack for utilizing the ball well in a sense that building attacking plays from the defensive line seems to be fluid which gives significant credit to the defenders who are comfortable with the ball, and a very capable anchor provided by defensive midfielder Takashi Odawara.

Ceres’ ability to keep and distribute the ball well upfield from the backline is a testament to the club’s utilization of the midfield as an effective channel in helping create opportunities for the frontline.

Bannered by the leadership of veteran midfielder and captain Stephan Schröck who could operate as a “free radical” in the middle of the park with the role as one of the main catalysts on the offensive end, Ceres’ midfield definitely is its main power source that drives the entire black and yellow juggernaut forward.

Worrisome finishing

Obviously the first major concern shown by the busmen was their finishing, which leaves much to be desired. For the duration of the match, particularly in the first half, Ceres-Negros spurned some good chances that could have put them at least with a five goal-advantage and may have put the tie to end early, even if Shan United were able to register a few goals later on.

However, because of the wasted efforts, Ceres, can only maintain a two-goal lead in the match, making the business end of the clash against Shan United very much tense and in the balance when the visiting side were able to convert a second goal for a thrilling 3-2 finish with the hosts just doing enough to hold on for the win.

First-game jitters and rustiness may have come into play for Ceres’ forwards, understandably so in this situation, but with the icebreaking match already done, the need to be sharper is definitely paramount heading into their away match against a possibly tougher proposition against Thai FA Cup champions Port FC in less than a week’s time.

An unsettled defense

In the second half, Shan United were given hope when on several occasions, the Ceres-Negros backline was caught flat-footed, eventually leading to two goals by the Burmese champions that contributed for a nervy finish to the fixture.

With Carlie De Murga’s departure, the onus is on the remaining defenders and the newcomers to sync-in with each other and establish a reliable defense.

Super Herrera also seemed to have suffered a knock during the match that contributed to more lethargic marking, and if Super will not be 100 percent come the next match, it could be a main concern for coach Risto Vidakovic to maintain an effective line of defense.

Lack of match-fitness

Lastly it was obvious that the busmen came up short in sustaining the needed intensity from kickoff to the final whistle.

As the second half wore on, so did Ceres-Negros’ form. Such a dip in the busmen’s performance gave Shan United the opportunity to pounce on the slack they saw with the Burmese club’s pacy forwards, particularly Liberian Keith Nah, who marauded the host team’s flanks in the last throes of the match.

Such lack of fitness (which the coaching staff is probably anticipating already) is something that the team should be focused on heading into their match against Port FC in Thailand. Even though the Thai FA Cup champions may also have the same predicament having only a friendly match against Police Tero the past few days with the domestic league in Thailand yet to begin until February, it would be important for the Philippine champions to address this matter, easier said than done though, due to the domestic season is yet to begin in two months time.

Photo credit: Glen Charles Lopez / Ceres-Negros FC

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Precious point: Pilipinas WNFT shows promise in milestone draw vs nemesis

The Philippine Women’s National Football Team (Pilipinas WNFT) opened their 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games campaign with a goalless draw against Myanmar last November 26, in Biñan Football Stadium. Despite the stalemate, there was actually more to that match than just the result.

Here are some of the reasons why that one-point earned by the Philippines in the group stage proved to be critical, and a crucial outcome that could set them in a good position to reach the semifinals and contend for a medal.

Myanmar were a thorn, until now

At least for the past decade, probably in the entire history of their encounters at the senior level, Pilipinas WNFT has never defeated or even drawn with the Asian Lionesses, Myanmar.

As a matter of fact, the Burmese squad has proven superior with all previous matches since the 2010’s ending convincingly in their favor against the Filipinas with a 2-0 outcome way back during the 2011 AFF Championship serving as the closest margin of victory ever.

Also, the lionesses have been one of the major spoilers for the Philippine women’s past quests for a medal finish with the just recent 2019 AFF Championship proving just that as Myanmar beat the Philippines 3-0 in the battle for bronze.

Now in 2019 right in front of the Filipino home crowd, the Philippines finally earned their first point against the team that gave them probably one of their toughest and forgetful matches – a result that could serve as a possible turning point in the future encounters between these two sides.

Consistent, solid defense saved the day for the Philippines

What may be ‘the great equalizer’ for the Filipinas in this latest fixture is the much improved defensive discipline and resolve shown against their much daunted Burmese rivals.

Despite the slightly tentative midfield and attack in the first half, in terms of keeping possession and creating chances, the hosts’ defense held firm to frustrate Myanmar’s offensive waves as the visitors came up empty handed despite some promising midfield play in the first 45 minutes.

Come the second half, all the more that the Philippine backline rose to the occasion, with the entire squad showing more fluidity the defense not only held fast in delivering its main role but also became the starting point of several offensive moves as Coach Let Dimzon’s wards began to successfully probe what seemed to be initially an impenetrable Burmese wall.

Goalkeeper Inna Palacios not only pulled off some fine saves, but she also demonstrated great anticipation with some crucial interventions by running out of her line to get first a number of through balls that could have been the breakthrough for the opposition.

The backline composed of Mea Bernal, Hali Long, Dai Dolino and subsitute Chelo Hodges, has always been effectively on the alert, eventually negating Myanmar’s highly rated front-line duo of Yee Yee Oo and Win Theingi Tun while Claire Lim may have provided the best individual performance with her audacious long range efforts, two of which either forced a crucial save from the opposing keeper or hit the crossbar, contributing on the offensive end on top of her staple enforcer role.

Such was the level of effectivity that has been delivered by the Philippines’ defense that Myanmar’s best chance came not from their strikers, but from their creative attacking midfielder Khan Malar Tun, proving how the supposed superior opposition was pushed to its limits in order to carve out opportunities but eventually ended up empty-handed.

Halftime adjustments almost delivered a win

Whatever the initial concerns that the Philippines had in the first 45 minutes, most of those have been addressed in the second half and this is where Head Coach Marnelli ‘Let’ Dimzon’s tactical nous came into play.

As the tenth minute of the second half expired, the hosts started to be more settled in their midfield play, anchored by captain Patrice Impelido, showing more composure and industry in working the ball from the middle of the park.

The flanks became more utilized as well, and to much greater effect as Camille Rodriguez, Alisha Del Campo and Sara Castañeda were given more room to create either by supplying the services needed towards Sarina Bolden, Quinley Quezada, and Shela Cadag (later on) at front or crafting opportunities themselves.

But the turning point in the match may have been the introduction of Eva Madarang near the hour mark, who provided the much needed fresh legs and versatility by operating as a free radical in the entire right flank mainly as a winger, support striker (in a more pronounced three-pronged attack) or midfielder, with a few unfamiliar cameos as wing-back – helping out on the defensive end as demanded by the situation.

Though opportunities did come, the arrival of that much awaited breakthrough wasn’t meant to be, despite the Philippines knocking at Myanmar’s door on several occasions as the match neared its expiry en-route to a monumental draw.

A working unit waiting to succeed

With what has been demonstrated, Pilipinas WNFT now is in a very good position to survive Group A of the 2019 SEA Games. But there’s still another barrier to hurdle with a tricky match against Malaysia set to be the decider for the Filipinas’ progression to the semis.

Nevertheless, if the opener against one of the region’s most dangerous sides Myamar could serve as a very minute yet reliable reference in this campaign, the Philippine Women’s National Football Team maybe primed to finally get its first medal in the regional biennial meet that has eluded them for 34 years since that bronze medal finish in 1985.

And if they reach the podium, with finishing first a possibility, then what a way to celebrate our women’s competitive homecoming after a decade of football odyssey.

Photo credit: Philippine Women’s National Football Team

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[OPINION] PFF Elections 2019: A plea

The Philippine Azkals have just concluded their final match for 2019 in Dubai, giving a short lull for in football proceedings before all attention by most Filipino football fans and stakeholders get channeled to the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games which will be held in Manila.

And as the football events kick off in the SEA Games, with fans busy in showing their support to the U-22 men and women’s teams in their respective campaigns, a much more important event that would significantly influence the course of Philippine football in the next few years is about to happen: The Philippine Football Federation (PFF) Congress where the elections for the new administration will happen.

In the coming November 29 elections, two parties will be vying for the presidential spot. One incumbent seeking a fourth term, while the other – a tenured official in the sport – is running for the highest office for the first time.

Both have plans, good ones (on paper, at least), but here’s the thing: As with any elections, only one candidate can win. And the fates of both will lie on the most crucial players come the main event – the FA representatives.

As of the moment, there are 36 associations (33 regional FA’s and 3 pro clubs) that make up the PFF. Each of these has a leader or president that will serve as the representative in the congress and has the power to vote come elections on who will be the next head of the federation.

So here are my statement and plea to the regional FA leaders who have the ability to choose the next head of Philippine football: VOTE WISELY! This will be the occasion that each of you wields an immense power – YOUR VOTE. Study the platforms of the two hopefuls carefully, including their respective track records. In your hands lie the immediate future of football.

Please, don’t take it for granted. It’s on you.

Copa Paulino Alcantara Final Kaya vs Ceres

Copa Alcantara: Ceres ‘Invincibles’ battle holders Kaya for PH football supremacy

Ceres-Negros and Kaya FC Iloilo secured their tickets to the Copa Paulino Alcantara final, and along with the mouthwatering face-off for the silverware, a much bigger implication is at stake that deals on the power-play in the early phase of Philippine football’s professional era.

Three-time consecutive Philippines Football League (PFL) champions Ceres were able to squeeze through a seven-goal thriller semifinal match against a spirited Stallion Laguna side by getting a 4-3 win in Binan Football Stadium last November 10.

In the other semifinal, which kicked-off simultaneously, Kaya successfully mounted a late push in the second half to get a 3-0 result and deny Mendiola FC 1991 any glimmer of hope of reaching the final for a shot at winning the cup.

The results from both matches rendered the qualification for a second AFC Cup spot a foregone conclusion with Kaya already filling the void being the 2019 PFL runners-up.

However, with both sides meeting in the Copa Paulino Alcantara decider, a bigger underlying battle for supremacy is at stake aside from just winning the coveted trophy, as the cup could now be considered more as a stamp of dominance in Philippine top-flight football.

Ceres-Negros’ push for domestic immortality

League champions Ceres-Negros won the league in very convincing fashion by not suffering a single loss. Such a feat earned them the Invincibles tag for the entire 2019 PFL campaign.

But a rampant performance in the course of the busmen’s cup campaign, save for their lackluster opening draw against Mendiola, made Ceres one of the clear favourites to win the second edition of the domestic cup.

If Coach Risto Vidakovic’s men are able to win against Kaya on November 16, the Bacolod-based club will now be the first ever winners of the domestic double, completing a sweep of the trophies that Philippine football has on offer at the highest level.

What will make the feat even more remarkable, if attained, is Ceres’ invincibility tag will then be for the entire 2019 season which will be an undefeated run that spans both the league and cup campaigns – something that might never be replicated for, at least, several years.

Kaya FC’s march towards destiny

Kaya FC Iloilo meanwhile are set to defend their title with only one hurdle left standing their way, the formidable Ceres fleet.

After achieving a dream start in the cup tournament with the 5-0 dismantling of Philippine Air Force, Coach Noel Marcaida’s men were pushed to the limit against Stallion Laguna in their final Group B fixture last November 6 with a 1-1 draw, as both teams tussled to seize top seeding which Kaya were able to hold on to.

However, the semifinal win against a hungry Mendiola squad proved that Kaya are legitimate defenders of the cup that they were able to win last year in thrilling fashion.

Come the final, if Kaya are able to take their chances and end up victorious, it would halt their close rivals, Ceres-Negros’ plans to achieve something exclusively rare, while they themselves will seize a historic back-to-back Copa Alcantara titles that could pave the way for them to a legitimate claim as the “Cup Kings” of Philippine Football, with the two of the biggest trophies once again split between the fierce rivals.

A true test of depth for The Invincibles

The final won’t be a walk in the park though for either side, as both squads’ mettles will be tested.

But a much tougher proposition hangs on Ceres-Negros as it is believed that several of their key players are already heading to the Azkals’ camp immediately after the recently concluded semifinal match in preparation for the World Cup qualifying match away against Maldives which will be on November 14.

Though Ceres’ squad is no doubt very deep, if full-force, the fact that five more players might not be available for the final against Kaya will be a true test of the busmen’s bench.

The Final of the 2019 Copa Paulino Alcantara is set on Saturday, November 16 in Binan Football Stadium.

Follow the Philippines Football League Facebook page for more info

Of Fortitude and Grit: On the Azkals’ monumental WCQ2022 draw vs China

With progressing to the third round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers on the line, the Philippine Azkals just achieved a massive goalless draw against a much higher ranked China last October 15, 2019 in Panaad to earn probably its most precious point in its entire history of competing in international football.

China, ranked 59 places above the Philippines in the most recent FIFA rankings at the time of this writing, came to Panaad with the favorites tag. But after the final whistle, both teams ended sharing the spoils in a stalemate encounter that may have gone either way.

Here are some five reasons why relative underdogs, the Azkals, were able to pull off quite a notable result in international football.

NEIL ETHERIDGE WAS A ROCK

Cardiff City FC shot-stopper, Neil Etheridge, had been in fine form against China’s Dragons, pulling off some amazing stops to earn himself and his team a clean-sheet against a side known for its firepower.

Neil’s return to the national squad after missing out all the previous matches in 2019 due to club commitments and, lately, to recover from an injury provided a notch in the squad’s defensive solidity.

In a match against a side which has its attack and speed as its most notable strengths, the Azkal’s Cardiff Bluebird rose highly to the occasion when the defensive line has been breached and it was only him left to tend to and snuff out the adversaries’ attempts.

Although Etheridge may have his saves as his biggest highlights against the Chinese in the Azkals’ 2022 World Cup qualifying fixture in Panaad, it is to note that the sentry have also been a catalyst for his team’s counterattack on at least two occasions with his quickly taken long throws towards the forward line, making him a situational playmaker which was a much welcome additional facet in the Filipinos’ game that night.

Etheridge’s experience, and commendable stint, playing in the English Premier League the past season may have contributed as one of the main ingredients as to why the Azkals were able to go to-to-toe against China, with the Filipino sentry able to come up with several fine saves, against the opposition.

THE AZKALS DEFENDED TO WIN

In contrast to the Syria match that transpired in Panaad, the Philippines approached the match against China by being more mindful on the defensive end as evidenced by the five-man backline on the starting lineup, with Mark Hartmann as the sole striker.

But despite the seemingly cautious and conservative formation employed by coach Goran Milojevic and his staff, the Filipinos showed the necessary impetus on the attack every time they got possession of the ball by taking chances, and half-chances, wisely on a number of occasions with Hartmann, Martin Steuble, Daisuke Sato, and substitute Angel Guirado having moments to either test the Chinese backline or even coming close to converting by testing opposing keeper Yan Junling.

The wing-play also did contribute to some buildups, but their battling approach in both flanks along with the midfield and central defense had been instrumental in several key duels for possession that have contributed to some of those promising counterattacks.

Despite some errant forward passes, which could be expected for a counterattacking approach, the Azkals overall may have executed the gameplay almost to a tee as they set out to frustrate China which the Philippines did, while knocking on the supposed superior side’s door on several occasions in a match that may have gone either way.

ANGEL GUIRADO STILL HAS IT

Former Davao Aguilas forward, Angel Guirado, continued his Azkals renaissance almost pulling off a dream impact sub moment when he tested China with a potent shot on target just a few moments after his introduction in the 78th minute in place of John Patrick Strauss.

The 34-year-old journeyman striker who had stints with several clubs in Europe and Asia, the number of which may have made an entire football squad, may have further cemented his case in the Azkals coaching staff to still be a significant contributor either as a starter or (as presented in this match against powerhouse China), an impact substitute.

Despite the current Chonburi forward’s age, which is already considered advanced in the normally fleeting career shelf-life of a footballer, Angel Guirado continues to show that he still has significant things to offer as he comes closer to the twilight of his Azkals playing days.

AMANI’S RETURN A DEFENSIVE BOOST

Another notable moment in the match against China, homegrown talent Amani Aguinaldo of Malaysian club PKNP saw action in the second half when he replaced injured Justin Baas just a few moments after the hour mark.

His brief involvement proved to be commendable one as he was able to contribute immensely at the back when China were already desperate to carve out a winning goal.

Along with fellow substitute Luke Woodland of Kuala Lumpur FA, who also provided a solid shift in place of also injured Carli De Murga, Aguinaldo’s being back in the thick of things after a recent stop-start spell due to injuries could be a boon for the Azkals’ defensive options ahead of these gruelling and intermittent international football campaigns.

BACK AND FORTH DYNAMICS SHOW PROMISE BIGGER THAN AZKALS’

The 4-2 loss against Syria a month ago may be caused by several factors, one of which could be the tactical side of things. But the recent monumental 0-0 draw at home against China could serve as a template on how the Azkals should approach future World Cup and Asian Cup qualification campaigns.

Despite employing a defensive 5-4-1 formation, the Philippine 11 actually were far more enterprising on the pitch than what the prematch paper showed. Several times, through a disciplined and smart approach in defending and utilizing possession, the Philippines were able to keep at bay and even threaten their supposedly superior Chinese counterparts.

The cardiac nature of that fixture, which greatly belied the goalless stalemate in the end, proved that the match may have gone either way (yes, even in favor of the Azkals who are the David to China’s Goliath). That match just showed the massive potential that this national squad is slowly beginning to unfold, at least in the Asian level of the international football sphere.

The mix of veterans and new young players, including those who are yet -but already set – to join in, gives further assurance that the Philippine National Football Team program is heading to. And with what they have shown and achieved in that mid-October night in Panaad against an Asian giant, it seemed the Azkals have found a bit of their playing identity which they could further consolidate for the immediate match-days.

But there are still a lot of grounds to prove on for the entire Philippine National Football Team programs, especially the youth levels that for the longest time are aching for positive results with the U-22 2019 SEA Games as the most pressing one and something to keep a close eye on with the events transpiring here in the Philippines.

But whatever surface the Azkals may have scratched out of that precious point against World Cup winning head coach Marcelo Lippi and his men on that fateful night in Bacolod in terms of the approach identity to playing, could be something that maybe further explored and, hopefully, applied to and – more importantly – work down to the youth squads.

May that come to pass.

Photo credit: PFF

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3 PFL players who deserve Azkals call-ups this 2019

The Philippine Azkals have three more fixtures for the remainder of 2019 with the World Cup qualifier match against China happening in a fortnight, and with the Philippines Football League (PFL) 2019 season in its end-phase, a few  local players emerged as standouts that could merit a consideration to be in Azkals Head Coach Goran Milojevic’s near future squad.

In the Azkals that recently competed against Syria and Guam for the qualifiers, only OJ Porteria, Mike Ott and Sean Kane (all of Ceres-Negros) represented the domestic pro league. Meanwhile, homegrown PFL player Jovin Bedic of Kaya who probably may have also featured in the squad, suffered an injury which made him unavailable that time.

However, with the domestic season already poised for its conclusion and the performances of players for their respective clubs already becoming clear in terms of how they fared, here is a list of three proven in-form local PFL players who deserve to have at least a shot in being part of the national team before 2019 ends (in no particular order).

Nathan Alquiros (Stallion Laguna, Midfielder)

Nathan Alquiros (Stallion Laguna, 6) battling for the ball against Mike Ott (Ceres-Negros). Source: Philippines Football League

One of Stallion Laguna’s main offensive orchestrators from the middle of the park has been an engine for his squad this PFL 2019 season which is currently at solo third in the standings.

Being the one who usually pull the strings for Coach Ernest Nierras’ Biñan-based squad either in the center or right midfield, with an occasional license to advance and strike forward, the product of De La Salle University’s football program has been a model of industry for his club.

Nathan Alquiros’ vision, ball-control and ability to read the play and unleash a shot in promising situations make him one of the standout creative midfielders in the league, not to mention his willingness to put in the hard work on the defensive end – something that the Azkals coaching staff might need to have a second look to further add a dash of uncompromising industry to the midfield.

Fitch Arboleda (Stallion Laguna, Winger/Forward/Midfielder)

Fitch Arboleda (Stallion Laguna, 27) with the ball as Boris Moudang (Air Force, 37) chases.
Source: Philippines Football League

Definitely one of the most consistent performers for Stallion Laguna this season, Fitch Arboleda has been on a tear for his club either as a scorer or a creator.

The pacy winger has been one of the main focal points of Stallion’s attack and his current output of nine goals, which is tied at fourth, is a testament of how Fitch has become an indispensable part of the club for all these three years in the PFL, not to mention his proven ability to also provide an assist to a much better-positioned strike partner.

However, the Azkals’ wealth in the winger and forward roles may prove a tough challenge for the former University of the East standout in making the squad. But if the Azkals are somehow presented a void on the flanks, Fitch Arboleda definitely is an option that should not be ignored.

Jim Ashley Flores (Mendiola FC 1991, Forward/Striker)

Jim Ashley Flores (Mendiola, 7) in an aerial battle against Chyma Uzoka (Global, 20)
Source: Philippines Football League

Arguably the most deserving of a call-up at the moment, Ashley Flores has been one of the few, yet most significant, positives for an otherwise tough debut season for FC Mendiola 1991 in the PFL.

The former San Beda University product’s current total of nine goals makes him tied in the goal-scorers’ standings at fourth, but what makes his achievement all the more notable is he was able to score against all other opposing PFL clubs, including powerhouses Ceres-Negros and Kaya FC.

A proven scorer deployed either as a main or support striker, whether it’s from a spectacular individual effort or a bundled goal produced from pure graft, Ashley Flores’ qualities and current form definitely merit a chance for an inclusion to the Azkals in at last one of its future qualifier matches.

Honorable Mentions

  • Alen Angeles (Mendiola FC 1991, Forward/Winger)
  • Jesus Melliza (Stallion Laguna, Forward/Midfielder)
  • Paolo Bugas (Green Archers United, Midfielder)
  • Marwin Angeles (Kaya FC Iloilo, Midfielder)
  • Joshua Dutosme (Ceres-Negros, Defender/Wingback)

YOUR OPINION COUNTS TOO!

Do you agree in this list? Which PFL player at the moment do you think deserves a call-up to the national team? Post them on the comments section below or on our social media channels on Facebook.

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The crucial campaign ahead for PH 2019 SEAG Men’s Football Team

The 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) will be hosted by the Philippines in the latter part of 2019 with men’s football as the biggest team sports that almost all participating nations are going to vie for with much fervor.

With limitations of teams only allowed to be comprised Under-22 players (with the exception of two overaged players) and the competition not falling within the FIFA international break, most senior Azkals (even if their ages falls well within SEAG eligibility) won’t be able to participate in this tournament due to club commitments. Despite these constraints, the Philippine SEAG football team, under the reins of Azkals manager Dan Palami, are preparing to assemble its strongest squad yet as reported in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Such an undertaking and campaign could prove seminal, if successful, as a template for organizing junior national teams for future tournaments.

Beginning mid-August, the Azkals management already held several days of open tryouts which were participated by several top junior prospects and hopefuls, both based locally and abroad.

And during the past September FIFA international break, right when the senior Azkals squad is in the middle of its World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualification campaigns, the initial shortlist of players for the 2019 SEAG were training in Manila.

Despite the early preparations, the task at hand is a monumental one, not only due to the fact that Azkals Management team has been tapped to be involved, but because the junior squad needs to turn its recent fortunes around as well for the better – something which is easier said than done.

THE HARD TRUTH

At the moment, in contrast to the leaps and bounds that the Azkals have achieved in terms of its relative profile in international football, the Philippine junior squads particularly the U-22 and U-23 still have a lot to do in order to close the gap to its other Southeast Asian counterparts.

Recent results by our youth squads have not been so encouraging, as the federation also recently took steps to improve talent identification and development at this level.

However, with the current system of youth football here in the country where the highest level still lies in the collegiate varsity leagues, it is still a far cry to the Philippines’ neighboring footballing nations where the best talents are honed within club system through academies and youth squads.

As the SEAG kicks off, surely traditional powerhouses and contenders will field young players coming from of either academy or club reserves from locally renowned clubs or even first team sensations (not to mention the additional two overage players who are likely to be veteran professionals).

These athletes that the Filipino U-22 SEAG squad will go up against already seasoned footballers, despite their young age, who are experiencing frequent, season-long and grinding competitive football at a high level making it a daunting proposition for the Philippine squad.

Hence, despite the promise and optimism that goes with a tried and tested Azkals management team being directly involved in the preparation of the SEAG men’s football team, expectations still should be tempered with healthy dose of realism.

REALISTIC TARGETS

Given that the U-22 Philippine SEAG squad will be made up mostly of varsity players from various colleges and universities reinforced with some standout youths from the Philippines Football League and two overage players, demanding for a medal finish will be too premature.

With the very high-level of competition and the high-stakes involved when given the profile of the sport, particularly for footballing nations, surviving the group and reaching the semifinals (matching the 1991 edition in Manila) for the Filipinos in Men’s Football will already be considered a resounding success and anything higher than would be a miraculous bonus.

A better expectation from the Philippine Men’s Football Team this 2019 SEAG for sports fans is to avoid lopsided losses. In this stage, with the preparation that is being done and the fact that the biennial tournament will be hosted in the Philippines, national pride is at stake for all sporting events – and that includes football. So a good account of our representatives in terms of competency level should be paramount. The least the Filipinos could expect is for the team to give a good fight.

Grinding out draws against contenders, winning against non-regional powerhouses should be the results to expect from the squad. If losses are inevitable they should not be without a fight. Such factors should be the ones considered as the more rational of expectations.

NEXT STEPS

Basing on what would be the outcome of the Philippines’ campaign in men’s football this 2019 SEAG, if reaching the semifinals is achieved, then it can be considered that the Azkals management’s direct involvement in the junior squad has obvious positive effects and should continue on.

If the campaign turns out to be otherwise, and ends up well below par of expectations, then it proves that there are an even bigger hurdles to conquer internally and they involve improving what is further down the footballing strata: the one that bridges the grassroots and the competitive youth levels of the sport.

2019 SEAG is definitely going to be big for Philippine Football as this could serve as either a turning point, an indicator, or an eye-opener for our country’s state in the sport at the developmental level.

azkals-vs-syria-world-cup-qualifier-preview

2020 FIFA WCQ: Why Syria is a major threat for Azkals

The 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign of the Philippine Azkals is about to begin as they face Syria at home in Bacolod on September 5, 2019.

However, the assignment facing coach Scott Cooper’s men is a tricky and dangerous one as although Syria will be heading as visitors into the crucial fixture, bringing a recent run of unfavorable results, the squad also known as The Eagles of Qasioun (which denotes the mountain near Damascus) are still a formidable squad for the Filipino team that is just beginning to hit its stride in the international football scene.

In the three times that Syria and the Philippines have faced each other (once in 1984 and twice in 2001), the Western Asians were the ones who ended up victorious.

Here are a few points, both good and bad, in relation to the Philippine Azkals regarding the dangerous Syrian national team.

The Good (What the Azkals can exploit)

Syria, with its current political issues as a nation, has affected the national team in terms of maintaining its previously lofty status as a footballing force in Asia.

Due to internal conflicts at home, Syria – for almost a decade now – played all of its designated “home” matches in neutral overseas venues.

The lack of a home-base eventually took its toll on the team in both preparation and results as The Eagles were only able to muster two wins in the year 2019 (in March 23 and July 8 respectively).

To further emphasize Syria’s downturn in terms of form, it wasn’t able to register a win in its most recent campaign which is the 2019 West Asian Football Federation Championship finishing with two draws and two losses putting the team in last place in Group A.

Leaky defense, in several instances, and a frontline that lacks firepower were the main issues that the Syrian side has had that has contributed to such unfavorable conclusions.

Syria’s recent, historically uncharacteristically poor form, is something that the Philippine Azkals could take note of and exploit, but these are just very minor points as we move to the threats and strengths that Syria possesses.

The Bad (What the Azkals should be wary of)

Although Syria is currently in the midst of a seemingly lackluster state in international football as already mentioned above, there are several points as to why this team is still very much a formidable force and most possibly a daunting task for the Philippine team to face in its bid to kickstart its World Cup qualification campaign on a high.

First and foremost, the most obvious, is the ranking of both squads. Syria is currently 87th (as of this writing) in the FIFA Ranking. The Philippines, meanwhile, sits further down at 126th. In the Football Elo ratings (which is a more realistic system in this writer’s opinion), Syria stands at 96th with the Azkals at 174th. Such a discrepancy, even on paper, puts the Azkals as underdogs.

Second, even if Syria is experiencing a low point (relative to its usual footballing standards) with its dismal run of results, it is important to consider that they are situated in West Asia, which is a very strong and competitive region in the Asian Football Confederation where several continental powerhouses (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) and dark horses (Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, UAE) are included. Such a dip in form and performance (due to understandable factors that the likes of Syria is experiencing) are punished severely results-wise.

Third, with their dismal run hounding them, Syria is motivated to overturn such a streak and head coach Fajr Ibrahim’s men are preparing well for the match against the Philippines in order to seize a monumental away win and turn their fortunes for the better in the best possible situation which is the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Such are just some of the reasons why Syria should not be take lightly and all the more that the Azkals should be wary and on-guard against this team.

Syria’s possible key players

FIRAS AL-KHATIB (Forward)

Despite being already 36-years of age, Al-Khatib is still a very much effective scorer both for club (Al-Salmiya) and country.

Such ability to put the ball into the back of the net front has been proven once again in the 2019 West Asian Championship when he top-scored as captain of his team with two goals.

With a rate of almost a goal in every other match (0.48), Al-Khatib is still very much a major threat if he will suit up and set foot on the pitch in Panaad on September 5.

AHMAD AL SALIH (Defender)

29-year-old center-back Ahmad Al Salih is one of the most capped players for Syria and will most likely to be in the squad against the Philippines.

A player with extensive experience in club football both domestically and abroad, Al Sahli will most likely be a key figure as one of the most dominant enforcers in the backline.

Aside from being primarily a defender, Al Sahli has the occasional penchant to score goals (mainly in set-plays) when needed.

OMAR KHARBIN (Forward)

Despite not featuring for the Western Asian Championships, Omar Kharbin might feature for Syria against the Azkals as the world cup qualifier match falls within the international break.

A player for Saudi club side Al-Hilal, but currently plays for Egyptian side Pyramids on loan, Kharbin is one of the in-form players for The Eagles of Qasioun.

Him being one of the only two players to find the back of the net in the 2019 Asian Cup proves his ability to deliver on the big stage.

OMAR AL SOMAH (Forward)

Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli’s towering striker (at 1.93 meters), Al Somah has been a prolific scorer in club football, but has yet to translate that for Syria.

If called up in the match against The Azkals, the 30-year-old’s size and ever-present threat to light it up as a target-man could pose a real problem for the Philippines.

Philippines’ key strengths

Without getting into details, here are some factors that could play in favor of the Philippine Azkals:

HOME PITCH

Philippine weather has its quirks and could play in favor of The Azkals. The home support would be very much play a factor as well.

IN-FORM INDIVIDUALS

The Azkals currently have some key players of their own especially ones that are performing well both in the domestic league and leagues abroad.

If Scott Cooper’s men can build good chemistry within, then it’s possible that they can produce an unprecedented upset against the much higher-ranked Syria.

At this point, it might be considered that Syria might be a shadow of its former self in the football world, but it cannot be denied that the West Asians have a much better track record than the Azkals.

But if the Philippine Azkals will be able to execute well come kick-off and maximize the advantages they have at home, then it is very much possible for The Azkals to get dream start to the World Cup qualifiers.

The September 5, 2019 World Cup qualifier match between the Philippine Azkals and Syria kicks off at 7:30PM in Panaad Stadium.

Photo credits: Syrian FA Facebook page

pfl2019-ceres-vs-kaya-aboitiz-pitch

OPINION: Lipa facility brings much needed dignity for Pinoy pro football

Just as the season in Philippine professional football has reached its midseason with the league seemingly just going through the motions a much welcome development happened with the inclusion of a facility in Lipa, Batangas that could save the league from a viewership perspective.

More known as the Aboitiz Pitch located within the Lima Estate in Batangas right on the edge of Lipa, the venue (which serves as the home ground of Green Archers United), with its current features as a playing surface and potential as a major hub for top-level tournaments, may just have shown what it takes to invigorate the remaining fixtures of the 2019 Philippines Football League [PFL] season.

It’s time to delve a bit more as to why this artificial pitch facility located at a considerable distance south of Metro Manila is such a saving grace for a league that could have headed towards an even greater disappointment in terms of fan experience.

BEFORE: A SAD SITUATION

PFL’s 2019 season hastily got its green-light after the demise of what could have been a season under a new league management (with a different branding). With several factors at stake, most especially when it comes to the Philippine clubs’ eligibility to participate in the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) international club tournaments (namely, AFC Cup and AFC Champions League) for the country’s top two performing teams (held by Kaya FC Iloilo and Ceres-Negros for the 2019 season), the league pushed through with the status quo when it comes to the top-tier professional club league affairs.

However, for 2019 it wasn’t really the same compared to 2018. The league opted to scrap the traditional “home and away” format particularly the inter-island travels in consideration of the the participating clubs which shouldered exorbitant costs for transportation and lodging for away  matches the past season. But this decision, in effect, removed Ceres-Negros’ Panaad Stadium and Kaya FC’s Iloilo Sports Complex out of the equation when it comes to the venues, leaving the league with two stadiums that can host matches: Rizal Stadium and Stallion Laguna’s Binan Football Stadium.

The problem is Rizal Stadium eventually was closed for renovation as it has been tapped as a venue for the upcoming 2019 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) football.

As a mitigating approach, the PFF artificial training pitch in Carmona, Cavite was tapped as another venue. Now lies the problem, that particular facility is not suitable to regularly host top-tier football matches as it is what it is: a training facility. It maybe a decent playing surface but it is far from appealing as a match venue for fans.

It maybe understandable if two to three matches were held there due to extreme reasons such as that suitable venues were unavailable. But no, the PFF Training Center has been for quite a considerable space in time been the ‘de facto’ main venue of the league. The effect via livestream was disheartening. 

In one particular match between Ceres and Kaya last July 10, in what should be the biggest high-quality match of the season between the only two of the nation’s AFC Cup participants for 2019 – both boasting national team players and players with European football experience – and one can see in every corner, missed attempt or throw-in scenario, cows grazing a few feet away. This writer can categorically say that that was one of the lowest points of the league’s current season.

SAVING GRACE

On July 23, the PFL had an inspection in the Aboitiz Pitch in Lipa as a possible additional venue to be primarily used as the home grounds of league debutants Green Archers United.

Eventually the nod by the league’s management has been secured and soon enough, Aboitiz Pitch hosted for the first time on August 3 as a neutral turf for a double-header that featured Mendiola against Global and a redemption headliner for the second meeting between defending league champion Ceres and cup ace Kaya.

For the first time, in quite a while, an evening kick-off was witnessed. Although, the proceedings have been dampened by the excessive downpour brought about by the monsoon exacerbated by a typhoon system north of the country. The new ground proved its worth, showing its features as a capable “all-weather” playing surface with an impromptu stress test. Despite the rains and howling winds, that affected the livestream coverage and even the technical overall quality of the match, the game was able to push through due to its surprisingly adequate drainage system that despite some puddle buildup, was still playable enough not to suffer major match delays. 

The following weekend, on August 10 and 11, with much more favorable conditions,  fans both in the stands and watching via livestream were able to enjoy the matches more.

LIPA PITCH: NOT PERFECT, BUT [MUCH] BETTER

The new venue option in Lipa may have provided a much needed revitalisation for the league in terms of the viewership experience for fans both in-person and on-line but it still has quite some improvements to undergo.

First is the spectator area, the bleachers aren’t covered forcing the fans to retreat to the roofed area during the August 3 and 4 matchdays, which does not have seats (facility management provided monobloc chairs as a stopgap but they were limited in numbers) and is far from the pitch drastically lessening match experience.

Second, the toilet facilities for spectators were not easily accessible (one has to go around the venue or pass over or under the tape barriers) and had drainage issues for the men’s room (the monsoon could have contributed) using instead the staff’s toilet or go further to the retail/mall restrooms.

Third, it’s just damn far (for Metro Manila fans). But this fact has a major upside: It opens up the sport to possible new fans within the vicinity. The playing ground is situated within an industrial zone. Beside the pitch is an outlets mall with shopping and dining facilities. Also nearby is a residential area. The setup is almost perfect in applying the principle of bringing the sport to the places outside the distractions of Metro Manila.

Despite these shortcomings, it is to note that the Aboitiz Pitch is not yet 100 percent complete especially when it comes to what it can offer to in-venue viewers. At least two food shops are planned to be setup behind the spectators’ area which once completed, would drastically improve the overall experience for fans. 

This football facility in Lipa is a very welcome addition to the current Binan Football Stadium – which is not yet capable of hosting evening matches, and surely much better than the spartan and “not media friendly” PFF Training Pitch.

HOW ABOUT PFF CARMONA?

This doesn’t mean to fully eliminate the training center in Carmona being featured in the PFL, but it should be used for extreme cases only – as a last resort for last-minute, unforeseen venue constraints. The considerable number of matchdays in the past weeks should be enough already.

PFF Center doesn’t have the appeal, all the more, the atmosphere to host a football match that is considered as “professional” and “top-flight”.

To paraphrase one player who shared his resoundingly positive impression after playing in Lipa last August 3:

“This [Aboitiz Pitch] is very good! It has lights, fans are here [despite lower turnout due to the weather]. It encourages us to feel better and play better. 

“It looks more professional – the way it should be.

“How can we be encouraged in [Carmona] if there are no fans watching, even worse, there are cows?!”

The Carmona facility should stay as it is meant to be: a training pitch. It should be a haven for clubs and squads to improve themselves and play outside the prying eyes of media and the possible accompanying distractions from fans. Case in point: The Azkals’ closed-door match against Mongolia last year as part of the preparation for the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup.

A SMALL POSITIVE

In closing, the coming of Aboitiz Pitch in Lipa to the PFL is just a small positive, but an urgently needed one.

There are still challenges in Philippine pro football that need to be addressed such as spreading the league to the provinces in a cost-effective manner, and using other traditional media channels to reach more people (particularly in Bacolod and Iloilo which are represented in the league) to name a few.

It is good that a new facility came into the Philippine professional football landscape. Here’s to hoping it won’t end there. Last June 6, the PFL management also did an inspection of a stadium in Imus, Cavite, which may or may not have passed the requirements as it has yet to host a match. Whatever, the case maybe, the need to increase match-worthy venues is imperative as it is a reflection of the league itself.