Friday August 17, 2018

Villaflor: When Ceres edged Yangon


That, dear football fans, describes in a nutshell how Ceres-Negros FC overcame Yangon United FC in their AFC Cup Asean Zonal Semifinals match-up.

Ceres actually lost 2-3 to Yangon at the Thuwanna Stadium in Myanmar last Wednesday, but the Philippine visitors just did enough to survive 6-5 on aggregate and advance to the two-leg finals against Home United.

This is the beauty of the two-leg format. Away goals have such make-or-break value that they give a losing team who score against the hosts more than a fighting chance in the return match.

So in Ceres’ case, even if they won 4-2 in Panaad, the team could not afford to just sit back and protect their lead in Myanmar. Two goals plus a shutout are all that Yangon needed to advance. To prevent that from happening, Ceres knew it needed to score at least an away goal.

When the stakes are this high and with such a format, the result is a dramatic, blisteringly physical, high-octane, high-scoring match, and that was the priceless reward that viewers last Wednesday afternoon got.

Watching the game from Fox Sports’s livestream, I was glad I didn’t miss the five-goal thriller that’s easily a classic in my book. For one, when you have the tournament’s top scorers in Ceres’ Bienvenido Marañon and Yangon’s Sekou Sylla with nine goals apiece playing against each other, one must expect a down-the-wire goalfest.

Still, I shouldn’t have blinked.

I barely had just warmed my seat in the second minute when the scoreline flashed 1-0 in favor of hosts Yangon, courtesy of Kosuke Uchida who rifled the ball that dropped on his feet past the keeper.

Pressing forward, Ceres retaliated six minutes later to snatch a crucial away goal, thanks to Manuel Ott who, with beautiful technique, slotted a square pass from Stephan Schröck following a defense-splitting run along the edge of the box.

Yangon tried to recover, but Ceres began to settle down and gradually took control of the match until half-time, which saw the visitors gain more than 60 percent of possession.

Ceres continued to rein in Yangon’s desperate attempts and seemed headed for a comfortable win when the ever-reliable winger Marañon sneakily sent the keeper the wrong way in the 78th-minute to bring Ceres ahead 2-1, which meant a comfy 6-3 aggregate lead.

But for reasons only he can fathom, Marañon taunted a Yangon defender, sparking a brawl, and the ref promptly red-carded the Spaniard, reducing Ceres to 10 men.

And then Yangon unleashed hell.

First, substitute forward Aee Soe equalized on the 83rd minute, although seconds later, Yangon was also reduced to 10 men following another red card on a midfielder who struck Amani Aguinaldo in the face.

But with three minutes remaining in regulation, Carli de Murga committed two defensive errors and was called for a handball in the box. Striker Sylla converted the penalty to give Yangon the lead at 3-2, and narrowed the aggregate to 6-5.

Like pop culture’s most famous mad titan, Yangon grew more dangerous and stronger as the seconds died. It was only after an excruciating seven minutes of added time that Yangon’s war of attrition ended. Yangon kept its unbeaten record at home, but it was Ceres that survived. Just barely.