ACL2020: FC Tokyo proved too big a hurdle for Ceres-Negros

Philippine champions Ceres-Negros fell short against hosts FC Tokyo as the AFC Champions League playoff match concluded 2-0 in favor of the Japanese side held in rain-soaked Ajinomoto Stadium last January 28.

The match began with both teams struggling to come up with decent play due to a waterlogged pitch. But FC Tokyo have been provided a promising opportunity with a free kick with skipper Keigo Higashi producing a teasing delivery but the ensuing header flew out of target.

In the 15th minute, FC Tokyo had a golden opportunity to get a goal with Higashi unleashing a goal-bound effort from inside the box, but Roland Muller pulled off a brilliant save with his leg to deny what could have been the breakthrough.

Come the 20th minute the Japanese outfit had another set-piece with Leandro providing the delivery only for Lebanese defender Joan Oumari to head over the bar.

A tense few moments immediately followed for the Filipino side as the east Asians marauded Ceres’ box, but the opportunities came and left unconverted.

Around the half-hour mark, both teams struggled to settle in their respective styles of play due to the tricky conditions that the water-logged pitch provided.

In the 37th minute, OJ Porteria’s ball-control forced FC Tokyo to commit a foul, but an almost decent effort from Ceres forward Bienvenido Maranon just flew wide of the far post.

Three minutes later, a defensive error by Super Herrera gifted Leandro a gilt-edged opportunity as he saw himself virtually in a one-on-one situation against Roland Muller but the Ceres stopper produced a brilliant double-save as parity was maintained until time expired for the end of the first half.

Three minutes after the restart, hosts FC Tokyo finally put themselves in front as a mix-up found defender Sei Muroya with the ball inside Ceres’ box who latched onto the opportunity with much conviction to beat Muller despite getting a hand on the ball.

Thirteen minutes later, the 2019 J1 runners up could have made it two goals up but Leandro’s strike just inside the D fizzled just wide of the far post as the hosts continued to pile on the pressure having seemingly adjusted already to the appallingly wet condition of the pitch.

True enough, FC Tokyo were able to find the back of the net once again, with Adailton pouncing on a good delivery from the right flank, only for the linesman to signal for offside which was harsh as replays showed a well-executed effort.

After a chipped shot by Adailton in the 72nd minute for FC Tokyo that beat Muller but missed the target, Mark Hartmann was introduced for Ceres in place of Dylan de Bruycker as the hosts were able to further impose themselves in the match.

A moment before the 80th minute, FC Tokyo were down to 10 men as Taichi Hara was given a straight red card for an elbow to Takashi Odawara’s forehead who needed treatment after being wounded from the contact.

Two minutes later, Ceres could have equalized from a set-piece but Super’s looping header was well anticipated by Tokyo’s sentry, Akihiro Hayashi.

In the 87th minute mark, Lopez Mendy saw his header fly wide and off the mark a set-piece. Another set-piece for the Filipino side saw Mendy with another chance to score with substitute James Younghusband on the support but the ball falling unkindly for the chance to pass.

And end-to-end action ensued immediately as what could be a penalty situation for Ceres was waived off with an opportunistic FC Tokyo pulling a quick counter for Adailton to be released, unleashing a crafty long-range strike that spectacularly found the back of the net and put the tie at rest in favor of the J1 side.

The result means FC Tokyo proceed to the group stage of the AFC Champions League, while Ceres-Negros FC will compete in the more familiar AFC Cup competition.

Photo credit: Ceres-Negros FC

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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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Schröck wizardry lifts Ceres-Negros over Port

Stephan Schröck’s 52nd minute magic was enough to power Ceres-Negros towards a 1-0 win against Port FC in Bangkok last January 21 and setup an AFC Champions League Qualification Playoffs against FC Tokyo in Japan next week.

The busmen were presented an early threat moments after kick-off when OJ Porteria committed a foul, but Port failed to capitalize on the ensuing freekick.

Hosts and Thai FA Cup champions Port have been in command in the ball possession department in the early proceedings but the Filipino club were able to come up with a few promising moments as well.

But the Port Lions were able to come up with timely threats as the first chance forced Super Herrera to pull off a last ditch clearance, while an overhead attempt by Heberty in the tenth minute called Ceres keeper Roland Müller to action.

Ceres had the best chance in the first quarter of an hour as Bienvenido Maranon unleashed a shot on target inside Port’s box but goalkeeper Worawut Srisupa was equal to it.

After a few more moments, an almost identical play, this time involving Mike Ott who fed to Porteria gave Ceres another golden chance with a well-taken strike but Port’s net minder once again came up with a fine save.

The match experienced a few minutes of end-to-end action as Ceres-Negros eventually showed more attacking impetus, but both sides still remained in a deadlock.

Near the half-hour mark, Stephan Schröck committed a foul that merited a caution, but the free-kick that followed in favor of Port FC flew wide and off-target.

At around the 40th minute mark, a clever play from the hosts found Bordin Phala in the best position to unleash an effort and break the deadlock but the ball sailed high and wide to even bother Müller. That attempt have been the last big chance as half-time arrived with both teams goalless.

In the second half, defender Josh Grommen was introduced for Ceres-Negros, replacing the injured Super as action resumed with Port FC once again showing the initiative in the opening moments.

What followed though was a fortunate run of circumstances for Ceres-Negros as an awarded a corner kick was taken short towards Schröck whose teasing cross deceived Worawut, deflecting the ball into his own net as the visitors drew first blood in the 52nd minute and the busmen’s captain being awarded the goal.

The breakthrough seemed to have opened up the match as both sides had their share of half-chances. But it was the host team that tried to claw themselves back into the tie with some sustained level of pressure.

Port had their most promising attempt when Sergio Suarez was able to head the ball from close-range and unmarked but his effort just flew off target with Müller already beaten.

Despite Port’s constant knocking on Ceres’ door, with substitute Adisak Kraisorn seeing his goal-bound effort denied by the leg of Ceres defender Takashi Odawara near the 80th minute, the visitors were able to weather the storm to get a monumental win against the Thai FA Cup champions and setup a final qualifier playoff date against FC Tokyo in Japan.

Ceres-Negros will next face FC Tokyo away on January 28 for the final qualification for the AFC Champions League Group Stage.

Photo credit: Ceres-Negros FC

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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

Ceres-Negros squeeze past Shan United in five-goal thriller

Ceres-Negros FC stave off a late fightback to win their AFC Champions League Preliminary Round 1 match against Shan United FC, 3-2, last January 14 in Rizal Memorial Stadium.

The fixture began with hosts Ceres showing more attacking impetus in the early proceedings. However, an early stoppage was prompted when Super was clipped by a Shan United player in the second minute.

Soon enough, the attacking verve shown by Risto Vidakovic’s men was duly rewarded when Robert Mendy latched on to a Pika Minegishi assist from the left flank to break the deadlock and give his side a bright start in just the fifth minute.

In the eighth minute, OJ Porteria unleashed just a few yards outside the D with the intent of doubling the lead for the Philippine champions but his effort flew just wide of the right post.

A few moments later, Robert Mendy seemed to have found himself released by a well weighted pass from Stephan Schröck but the referee brandished a yellow card instead for a handball.

For the most part of the first half, the busmen were mostly on the ascendancy while visitors Shan United were mostly on the back foot, with chances limited on the few opportunities via the counter that were snuffed well by the hosts.

A free kick opportunity taken by Stephan Schröck in the 17th minute was well on-target but Shan United captain and goalkeeper Thiha Sithu anticipated the shot well for a timely intervention.

In the 21st minute of the proceedings a well-worked play by the Ceres frontline saw Bienve Marañon in a promising position to drive from range inside the box but his attempt flew just wide of the far post.

Three minutes later, a rare foray by Shan United into Ceres-Negros’ half came to naught as Roland Müller smothered what could have been a promising ball.

As the half hour mark arrived, a rare promising spell came in favor of Shan United as they were able to unearth a buildup play within the confines of Ceres’ penalty box but Super’s diligent marking was enough to break down the play.

Ten minutes before the half-time mark, Bienve was fouled by Shan defender Daniel Tagoe, who was cautioned with a yellow card by referee Ali Hasan Abdulnabi, but the ensuing freekick by the hosts was well managed by the visiting side.

In the 40th minute, Ceres finally doubled their lead as OJ Porteria crafted a well-placed cross for Marañon to tuck the ball into the back of the net from the center of the box as the break arrived with Philippines’ undefeated double champion enjoying a comfortable lead.

Three minutes after the restart, the hosts once again enjoyed a few gilt-edged chances as Mendy was released by a well-timed feed from Mike Ott, but his effort flew wide of the near post. Immediately, Porteria had a driven shot denied by the bar with Mendy’s follow-up going wide once again.

Ceres continued their relentless pursuit of the insurance goal as they dominated possession and crafted opportunities with Shan United crowding their box to weather the busmen’s barrage.

In the 56th minute, a Bienvenido Marañon effort off Mendy’s pass was denied by the bar as another chance came begging to put the tie well at rest in favor of the hosts.

A minute after the hour mark, Shan United may have seen their best chance of the match as an Abubakar freekick was deflected just narrowly wide of Müller’s far post.

In the 68th minute a scare came against Ceres as a defensive effort almost gifted the Burmese champions a consolation goal but Müller was able to come up with a timely save to keep the clean sheet.

But the visitors finally got a lifeline in the 73rd minute as Burmese forward Zin Min Tun headed in to pull a goal back as the defense was caught napping.

Ceres tried to pull off an immediate response, crafting at least three chances to no avail as the tie suddenly became more tense for both sides with fouls seemingly more aplenty.

A minute before the 80th minute mark, the hosts were able to restore their two-goal lead as OJ Porteria made sure of his attempt from close range as the match began to be more heated than ever before with cautions being given to both sides.

Three minutes before the 90th minute mark, Shan United reduced the deficit once again as Maximin scored with the hosts’ defense caught flat-footed. Not a minute has passed as the alarm bells rang once again for Ceres with Keith Nah curling just wide from the right flank from a counterattacking play.

Keith Nah turned to be the aggressor in favor of the Burmese side late in the match as his subsequent foray into the right flank forced a foul and a freekick which Nanda Kyaw was able to decently curl only to miss by a small margin.

Despite the late fightback and some nervous final moments, Ceres-Negros eventually got the crucial win to setup a match against Thai FA Cup champions Port FC in Thailand.

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Projected Starting XI: Ceres-Negros v Shan United

With PFL titleholders Ceres-Negros about to kick-off their season against Myanmar champions Shan United in the AFC Champions League 2020 preliminary match, here is how both teams’ starters may line up.

Ceres-Negros FC

Possible formations: 4-1-2-1-2 / 4-3-3

With a wealth of talents in their ranks, Coach Risto Vidakovic will have several options leading to some tough choices for his starters. But the busmen’s mentor might opt for a tried and tested midfield with a few changes up front given the club’s attacking reinforcements and the backline with Junior Muñoz and Jeffrey Christiaens’ return to fitness.

With a loaded squad, substitutions will be crucial for Ceres when it comes to the needed adjustments based on how the tie will pan out in the latter stages.

Shan United FC

Possible formations: 4-3-1-2/4-3-3/4-3-2-1

Shan United already played a competitive match domestically heading into their clash against Ceres-Negros and head coach might opt for the same set of starters with Liberian forward Keith Nah as the focal point in attack supported by Zi Min Tun and Maximin providing the creative element from the middle of the park.

An injury though to defender Nyein Chan from the recent league opener might merit a slight change for Shan United’s starting eleven, but it might just pave the way for Kyrgyz defender (of Ghanaian origin) Daniel Tagoe to slot in as a first-choice option in the backline.

Ceres-Negros vs Shan United kicks off on January 14 at 7:30PM in Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Photo credit: Ceres-Negros FC

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ACL2020 prelim: Ceres-Negros, Shan United to clash in ‘Battle of the Undefeated’

It’s a battle between two undefeated clubs as Philippine double champions Ceres-Negros face Burmese counterparts Shan United in the AFC Champions League preliminary match on January 14.

Speaking during the prematch presser last Monday afternoon, January 13, coach Risto Vidakovic is anticipating a tricky and tough proposition ahead of their season opener.

“It’s going to be a very hard game, because it’s our first [match of the 2020 season]… I cannot say that we are ready 100%. We just had three training sessions. It’s the first game for us and nobody is [match] fit enough. But we have to forget all of the excuses. I’m not expecting from my players [as] it’s impossible to be prepared [in this situation]. But we want to win and I’m expecting everyone to give 100% on the game, that’s all I need [from them].

Ceres-Negros FC: Defender Sean Kane (left), Head Coach Risto Vidakovic (right)

Meanwhile defender Sean Kane also expressed the same sentiments as his mentor given the match being their first for the year’s set of campaigns but the Ceres stalwart believes that they have a chance if they execute well and maximize the talents at hand.

“We know how coach wants us to play. I’d say that we just [need to] follow the plan and try to get the new players on-board as soon as possible. We take tomorrow and prepare as well as we can.”

Ceres- Negros strengthened their squad for the upcoming 2020 season with the addition of forward Mark Hartmann, midfielders Hikaru Minegishi and Arnie Pasinabo, and defender Joshua Grommen in their already talented team.

But visiting side Shan United will definitely be no walk in the park as they are bannered with local standouts Zin Min Tun and Dway Ko Ko Chit with reinforcements provided by their foreign contingent with Kyrgyz defender Daniel Tagoe, Ivorian midfielder Maximin, Senegalese midfielder Abubakar and highly rated Liberian forward Keith Nah.

Shan United: Goalkeeper Thiha Sithu (left), Head Coach Aung Naing (center)

“For this match, we haven’t made big preparations [as] our league started a few days ago, so we already played one match locally. One of our key defenders got injured in that match, but we will still try our best to get a good result tomorrow,” said Shan United FC head coach Aung Naing.

Meanwhile goalkeeper Thiha Sithu already is familiar with the hosts and knows the significance of the task at hand, yet is still optimistic of his team’s chances.

“We have played Ceres-Negros three or four times already so we now that they are a very good team. We will play with respect for our opponents and at then play with unity. Hopefully we get a good result tomorrow.”

What makes the matchup interesting is the fact that both teams are to face each other coming from their successful campaigns last season without suffering a single defeat in their respective leagues.

“We have a good level of confidence heading into this match based on last year’s [undefeated domestic league campaign], but this year will be different and Ceres is a very good team. Last year we lost against them [in the AFC Cup] both home and away, but this year we will try to win,” added coach Aung Naing.

Ceres-Negros of the Philippines host Shan United of Myanmar on Tuesday, January 13, at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. Kickoff is at 7:30PM. Admission is free while the match will be shown live on 5Plus while a delayed same day telecast will be broadcasted via One Sports at 10PM.

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Ceres-Negros anticipate arduous AFC Champions League 2020 campaign

Philippine football’s domestic double champions, Ceres-Negros FC, are once again set to embark on their continental campaign for 2020 by facing Myanmar’s national league titleholders Shan United in the AFC Champions League preliminary round one match this January 20, 2019 at the Rizal Stadium.

Already qualified for the AFC Cup Group Stage, the Busmen are looking to take their chances with the hopes of qualifying for the group stage of Asian club football’s highest level of competition.

But it won’t be a walk in the park as stated by Head Coach Risto Vidakovic during the Philippine Sportswriters’ Association Forum last January 8 when it came to their first assignment Shan United given both competing clubs are virtually playing their first matches of their respective seasons with new key player acquisitions.

“This game is very important for us. If we want to go to the next round, we have to fight for it,” shared the Serbian mentor who was also quick to provide on how tricky the task at hand is going to be for his squad.

“[But] nobody knows what is going to happen [in the match] because both teams are going to play their first games [of the season]. Nobody knows how they are and how we are [tactically]. We’ll [have to] see.”

Ceres team captain Stephan Schröck stated that the team’s mindset is on winning their qualification campaign opener.

“It’s always on winning. Regardless if we are prepared or if we have a short time together or long time together (as a team), it’s always about winning… The mindset is prepared. Let’s see if the body will follow.”

Burmese club Shan United are coming into the match as Myanmar’s representatives after winning the 2019 National League undefeated, bannered by local standout forwards Zin Min Tun and Dway Ko Ko Chit. But their crucial acquisition in the offseason is Liberian striker Keith Nah who just played for rivals Ayeyawady United the previous campaign, scoring 10 goals.

Ceres-Negros have just completed getting the services (as of this writing) of Azkals striker Mark Hartmann who previously played for Thai club Nakhon Ratchasima, winger Hikaru Minegishi (formerly of JL Chiang Mai United), defender Josh Grommen (from Sukhothai FC), and Arnie Pasinabo (from Kaya FC) as reinforcements for the upcoming season. Meanwhile the current confirmed departures from the Philippine champions are midfielder Miguel Tanton, team captain Carlie De Murga (rumored to be heading to Thai club Chonburi) and youngster Charles Barberan.

If Ceres-Negros successfully get a positive result against Shan United, they proceed to preliminary round 2 where they will face Thai FA Cup champions Port FC in a week’s time in Thailand who have former Ceres captain and Azkals defender Martin Steuble in their ranks. And if ever the Busmen get through against Port, they go to Japan to face J1 league powerhouse Kashima Antlers as their final hurdle towards breaking through the Champions League group stage.

Ceres-Negros vs Shan United AFC Champions League preliminary round one kicks off  in Rizal Memorial Football Stadium on January 14, 2019 at 7:30PM.

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5 minutes of added time with Ceres head coach Risto Vidaković

Ceres-Negros FC holds the distinction of being the only Filipino club to reach the knockout stage of the AFC Cup in their history of participation in the tournament proper. One of the biggest factors in the Negrense side’s ability to go far in those international campaigns is none other than Coach Risto Vidaković .

The Serbian head coach has been instrumental in The Busmen’s rise to prominence, making a name not just in Philippine football, where he guided his talented squad to back-to-back PFL championships, but also on the Asian front with some watershed moments and wins against more fancied sides during the AFC Champions League qualifications and AFC Cup tournaments.

Now in the midst of the 2019 season of the AFC Cup, Ceres-Negros once again head into the ASEAN Zone Semifinals. As they gear up for the first leg match against Hanoi FC in Panaad in a fortnight, here are a few words of wisdom and insights from the mentor himself which he shared with the 5th Minute of Added Time right before a training session.

The first thing to be brought up was on what has been Coach Risto’s inspiration on Ceres-Negros’ highly technical approach to the game, to which the gaffer responded that it boils down mainly to the type of players at his disposal.

“It depends on the players. We have that kind of players who are small, but technically good and fast. We cannot (apply) another kind of football because it’s very hard to play long balls if you don’t have tall players so we try instead to play with our build-up and passing game – a playmaking type of football. I just adapt on the type of players that we have.”

With regards to his influences in football, particularly the teams that impacted him the most when it comes to the philosophy and style (or even the culture) of play, Coach Risto responded that it is more of the country that influenced him the most.

“I played a long time in Spain and (been involved with) Spanish football. I’m already (living for) twenty-five years in Spain. I’ve coached there, and I think it’s the country that I bring with me (when it comes to) the style of football. Spanish football is known to be having technical and very good (style of) football.”

Touching on the most influential coaches and managers, Coach Risto was asked on the matter to which he replied by mentioning one name.

“You know, every coach has his own philosophy. The styles of football which are played now, and everywhere… you can choose. You can play defensively, you can play offense-minded football, but everyone also chooses the style (in consideration of the type of) his players.

“It’s up to you what (style) you want to recognize and what you need, and to adapt the best for your players. It’s not easy.

“I had many coaches in my career. One of them is, of course, Luis Aragonés. I learned a lot from him and he is practically the man who built the Spanish National Team that won the European Cup under him and the same team that won the World Cup later and many titles after him. I think he is (the one) who made the team. I was lucky to have him as a coach and I think he influenced me.”

Risto Vidaković  may have begun his footballing career in Serbia, reaching such a high level to the point of playing for one of the country’s biggest clubs, Red Star Belgrade, before moving to Spain in 1994. His opportunity to play under the famed Spanish coach, Aragonés, who guided La Roja to the Euro 2008 title, happened during the 1997-98 season in Real Betis where the legendary coach mentored the club for a season.

Lastly, on how he wants to be remembered when it comes to his legacy with Ceres-Negros, Risto Vidaković simply replied:

“I think what we did is already something historic. It’s there. Nobody can change it. What we did for these past three years is not easy – to be in the finals of the AFC Cup ASEAN Zone two times in a row (2017, 2018), and this year (2019) when we are on the way to the semifinals against a tough opponent and hopefully be in the finals again… I hope Philippine football can recognize that.

In parting, Ceres-Negros FC’s architect of its seemingly on-going “golden age” in professional club football stated his hopes for the beautiful game in the country.

“I hope Philippine football can grow and it can bring the crowd to the stadiums to watch football because I think the Filipino is very talented for football. I think it’s the perfect sport for the Filipino. Because Filipinos have the perfect profile, they’re fast, and technically very good (with the right training). And I think if we can bring many kids to play football then we don’t have to worry about the future (of the sport).

“But for now, we are still building something that is very far away from (the level that) we need (to be at).”

Head coach Risto Vidaković and his Ceres-Negros FC squad are set to face Hanoi FC for the first leg of the 2019 AFC Cup ASEAN Zone Semifinals on Tuesday, June 18 at the Panaad Stadium while the away leg in Hanoi, Vietnam is set on June 25.

Photo credit: Philippines Football League

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The machine that is Ceres-Negros

Filipino football club Ceres-Negros has established itself as the undisputed kings of football in the country at present, and they’re making big strides internationally as well. A recent release in the AFC club rankings by footyrankings.com put them almost at the top of the ASEAN region as of May 22, 2019.

Looking at their significant achievements in the past few seasons, it awe-inspiring as to what made this Western Visayas club reach such heights in such a short period of time since its founding in 2012.

Let’s take a look into some of the many things that made Ceres-Negros such a machine in Philippine and Southeast Asian club football.

Winning culture

Since their existence as a competitive club, The Busmen – as they have been fondly known, have been relentless in their pursuit of winning the tournaments that they’ve participated in.

Source: Ceres-Negros FC

From their participation in the PFF National Men’s Club Championship in 2012, up to the 2018 Philippines Football League (PFL) campaign, Ceres-Negros were able to win every single year with 2016 as the only exception when they failed to successfully defend their United Football League Division 1 title ending as runners-up.

Right from its inception, tasting success for the first time seemed to have made them addicted to it that driving the club to mount an era of domination, which they did for the past few years.

Risto Vidakovic: Mastermind at the helm

The early glory years of the club in the domestic scene from 2012 to 2016, when they were then known as Ceres-LaSalle, can be attributed to Filipino head coaches Ali Go and Frank Muescan, and Korea’s Cha Seung-ryong. A potential for greatness was paved in these early years. But come 2016, a new head coach, Risto Vidakovic, took the reins with the rest of Philippine club football not knowing the current great era that is about to transpire from the island of Negros.

A Serbian who started his playing  career in his home country with Sarajevo and Red Star Belgrade, Coach Risto eventually moved to Spain in the mid-90’s where he played for top flight clubs Real Betis and Osasuna. After his playing days have come to an end he then embarked on a head-coaching career in Spain with clubs such as Cadiz and Osasuna, then briefly managing in Honduras before that all-crucial move to the Philippines to be the mentor of a very promising Ceres-Negros team.

Ceres-Negros Head Coach Risto Vidakovic

What followed in his tenure as head coach could be considered as the one that ushered the club’s highest point in its current history. The system and type of football that Coach Risto introduced proved to be ruthlessly effective in the domestic front. Add to those the astute acquisitions that the club as made with regards to the type of players who came into the club and his technical approach proved to be a perfect fit that propelled the squad to surprising, yet well-deserved results. 

Also, the creation of a fully professional league in the country (the PFL) and the Filipino club teams’ eligibility to participate in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) tournaments that began the previous year provided the perfect storm towards an unprecedented golden age for the club as Coach Risto guided his wards to uncharted territories for each campaign with milestone upon milestone of results.

The journey of 2017

2017 season would prove to be the watershed for the Bacolod-based club as it achieved the distinction of becoming the first ever champions of the PFL. To top it all off, on the international club competition front, Ceres became the first Filipino club to conquer the ASEAN zone of the AFC Cup and reach the Interzone semifinals.

During that campaign, the Busmen were able to defeat Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta’zim and Singapore’s Home United in the process, only for their progress to the Interzone finals be halted by Istiklol of Tajikistan.

That year most probably put Ceres on the map of Asian football as one of the fast-rising clubs in the continent. The players who led the way then, Stephan Schröck, Manny Ott, Iain Ramsay, and Bienvenido Marañon, to name a few, further endeared them to the club’s passionate fans.

The particular season instilled a certain belief to the squad that was able to spill into the early part of the 2018 campaign when The Busmen were able to reach the playoff stage of the AFC Champions League qualification only to be stopped in their tracks by Anthony Modeste and the rest of a then formidable Tianjin Quanjian of China which boasted internationally recongnizable players such as Alexandre Pato of Brazil and Axel Witsel of Belgium.

A legacy “in-progress”

With another PFL title and an appearance in the AFC Cup ASEAN Zone Final in 2018 Ceres-Negros no doubt are in the midst of building a lasting legacy for their young history as a club while in this period of domestic dominance and international repute. In spite of these amazing progress that the club is experiencing, Coach Risto himself is still in awe of what the club has achieved.

“It’s very hard to explain (this level of success) because nobody expected it. I think what we reached, especially in becoming on of the best Southeast Asian clubs in the AFC ranking is a long way, especially the three years that (passed) in the AFC competitions. It’s not easy to (achieve) that,” Vidakovic shared.

The coach also mentioned the ownership who helped make all things possible from a financial standpoint.

“Especially, it’s a big effort from the owner of the club (Leo Rey Yanson) to keep these players together, to invest so (much) money in football in a country where football is not so important. Where football is not the number one sport.

“It’s something that, maybe, nobody could recognize now. (But) maybe in the future, somebody will talk about it,” added the gaffer.

Indeed, Ceres-Negros will not reach its current status as a now internationally recognized club in Asia if not for the monumental efforts and resources provided by club owner and chairman Leo Rey Yanson who, with his passion, has given so much to put the club to its relatively lofty heights in the Philippine football setup.

La Maquina

This Ceres-Negros team, as an organization, has been doing wonders not just in the city that they represent, but the whole club football scene in the Philippines. Consider the people of Bacolod blessed in pro-football because of this.

In this modern and internet-dominated world, it’s hard to believe that a legend is brewing in Philippine football right at this moment. But that is what’s happening with Ceres-Negros and it is possible that they are creating a blueprint for other Filipino clubs to follow or even improve upon in the future.

Given the delayed growth of football in the Philippines as a spectator sport, Ceres-Negros’ current rise is hard to compare with the current giants of the game. Barcelona? Manchester United? Liverpool? Not quite.

The tradition and lore, is yet to be fully established for this club. But their reputation is on an exponential trajectory making this particular phase of their existence something that will define them later on.

These past few years are what is building Ceres-Negros’ legend, and the parallelism for this exciting new club in Southeast Asia is hard not to be compared to. That comparison goes to somewhere in time when it shares a bit of a resemblance with – back to an era when football was at its inflection point towards being the most popular in the world, back to almost 80 years ago in Argentina when River Plate forged its legend from that stellar 1940’s squad.

River Plate 1940’s

One of the biggest teams in Argentina and in the footballing world in terms of historic significance, River Plate of Buenos Aires became what it is because of a generation of players who played a style of football so pleasing to the eye. Along with the flair came a string of successful league campaigns that built its lore, earning the hefty moniker “La Maquina” (The Machine).

The mechanical element in this label does not denote monotony or boring repetition. On the contrary, it’s more of a general picture of artfulness in terms of the intricacy and complication in that particular squad’s game, a melding of elements working together for a bigger purpose, like a magnum opus of a Swiss master watchmaker that never fails to mesmerize with its complexities and features.  

This is the similar ethos that Ceres-Negros seem to share and exhibit, creating a reputation of positive football with a certain level of excellence that is catching the attention of their peers not just locally, but even overseas.

But it wasn’t a philosophy borne out of a whim for The Busmen, but out of necessity according to Coach Risto Vidakovic.

“I think (our) style of play depends on the players. We have small players, but are technically very good, (and) fast. And I think we cannot practice another kind of football because it’s very hard to play long balls if you don’t have tall players (up front) so we try to build up (and) play a passing game – playmaking football… I just adapt on the conditions of the players.”

In the end, it’s an adaptation resulting to a playing style that became the club’s strength and signature, and it was demonstrated to the fore during the recently concluded group phase of the 2019 AFC Cup campaign where The Busmen amassed a 57% average possession with an 83% passing accuracy.

With back-to-back domestic titles in the professional era, and a consistency shown by reaching the knockout phase on the continental front in the AFC Cup, the results and milestones have been a testament to the effectivity of Ceres-Negros’ current playing philosophy as it pushes them to further establish themselves in club football.

Technical, intricate, dynamic, effective – these words describe the current system of play that Bacolod’s men in yellow manifest on the pitch as they continue to carve their path and set the bar in Philippine club football as a unit.

Philippines’ “La Maquina” – Ceres-Negros FC – powering the bus into high gear.

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Photo credit: Ceres-Negros FC