The Green Archers were in a funk. Three days after absorbing a humiliating 7-0 shellacking at the hands of league-leading Ceres, here they were on Saturday, down 3-0 in first half injury time against Stallion. Ten goals allowed in 135 minutes. Ouch.
Starting right back Dodong Villareal was unavailable because of suspension and talisman Chieffy Caligdong was nursing an injury and couldn’t play. They badly missed Villareal’s speed and work rate, and looked adrift sans Caligdong’s experience and leadership.
The Archers were getting burned in the flanks and Stallion was exploiting holes in the center of the defense. All three goals were headers. Only the efforts of keeper Paolo Pascual, who had to make two terrific blanks in the first four minutes, prevented a heavier scoreline.
Just before halftime Manok Simpron wins a penalty and Robert Lopez-Mendy smacks it in to give GAU some hope going into the dressing room.
Archers coach Dolfo Alicante surprisingly removes Simpron, who had been one of the team’s only bright spots, and also sacrifices Jimuel Ariola. In comes Kennedy Uzoka and a defensive-minded player, Greggy Yang.
For some reason the shift works. A few minutes into the second half Lopez-Mendy backheels to Jhan Jhan Melliza on top of the penalty box and the Ilonggo unleashes a rocket that beats Stallion keeper Johann Noetzel. What’s doubly amazing is that he did it with his weaker right foot. 3-2.
Minutes later Melliza tries to scoop over Noetzel. The keeper miscontrols it forward and Lopez Mendy pounces to bundle it into the net for 3-3. Stallion have been “Istanbulled” to borrow Liverpool parlance.
The last twenty minutes were as thrilling as a Fast And Furious movie, end to end stuff with 1v1 chances and great saves on both ends. Pascual batted away a brilliant free kick that made me remember Ed Sacapano’s flying diving save on Shaiful Esah in Cebu in 2012, when the Azkals beat Singapore in a friendly, 1-0.
“Oh yeah, I remember that one,” said Pascual, who was Sacapano’s backup that night.
Pascual’s brilliant reactions and judgement going forward to tidy up balls has been good. His confidence is also sky high. TV5 commentators Ryan Fenix and Cedelf Tupas postulated that he is ripe for another Azkals call-up. Hard to disagree. It helps that he plays for a team that gives him A LOT of work, sometimes too much.
Paolo can split MOTM honors with Lopez-Mendy, who had a hand in all three goals. He has grown mightily as GAU’s center-forward, coming up with big scores in recent games.
The Archers, after their hellish midweek outing against Ceres, now restore a measure of pride. Stallion must ponder what happened and learn.
The first game of the evening was a beauty too, with Manila Jeepney continuing their good form with a 2-2 draw against fancied Global. The defending champs got their third draw in a row, rescuing two points with this late beauty from Daisuke Sato, which brought back memories of Carli Lloyd’s epic strike in the Women’s World Cup final.
Somewhere along the way, parity has come to the UFL first division. It’s great to see so many eye-catching, close games for a change.
The big winner in all this is Ceres. With two of their chasers dropping points, the title, more than ever, seems destined to go to Bacolod. There is still a mathematical chance that another team can win, but it’s just that. Just numbers. Ceres can put one hand on the trophy and another very, very soon.