The famed American humorist Mark Twain was said to have once read his own obituary. “The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” he is memorably quoted as saying.
It’s a similar story with two-time defending champs FEU. They were very indifferent in the first round, beginning the season with a goalless draw versus UP, to losing to De La Salle and UST 1-0, and generally appearing a shadow of themselves sans the injured Nano Amita. And then, the second round.
Last weekend they handed DLSU their first loss of the season, 1-0, thanks to a second-half goal by wonder rookie Rico Andes. Then on Saturday they dealt the only other unbeaten side, UST, their first loss of the campaign, with a dominant 4-0 performance in front of a good crowd in McKinley Hill.
Rookie Dave Deloso had the first two goals one in either half, and then another two late from the rarely-used Michael Menzi and substitute Eric Giganto.
UST had led a charmed life, surprising many with a terrific first round that put them atop the table. But their hopes of an unbeaten season came to a skidding halt on Saturday. To be honest, the Tamaraws put them in their place and, for at least one night, exposed the Tigers as pretenders and not yet contenders.
The Tamaraws asphyxiated UST in the middle third, where games tend to be won and lost. Their uptempo pressing and sharp passing largely neutralized UST’s creative attacking midfielder, Karl Bronda. AJ Pasion, UST’s dazzling rookie striker, was limited in his chances.
Kim Chul Su, the FEU coach, loves to shuffle the deck and keep opponents guessing on which chess piece will occupy which square. On Saturday Chy Villaseñor, ordinarily a holding midfield, was deployed as a wide player. Val Jurao, who is typically a winger, seemed to be a false nine. Paolo Bugas was also brought into the middle. Josh Mulero, FEU’s hulking Nigerian, is usually a centerback but on Saturday he could be seen storming upfield and serving up passes. Rookie sensation Rico Andes has played both centerback and striker. On Saturday he was a forward.
This is a form of Total Football, Korean-style. And it’s working. FEU is a team of interchangeable parts where everyone knows the system and can be plugging in almost anywhere.
Dave Deloso, who scored in the Ang Liga Cup final, is proving to be a composed, clinical finisher who twice outfoxed UST goalie Zaldy Abraham off superb throughballs from Jurao and Bugas. Deloso’s fine form allowed Kim to not start Giganto, an enormous talent who could start for any other UAAP squad. Giganto scored anyway as part of torrid seventeen minutes late when the floodgates creaked open and UST conceded three. UST missed Ian De Castro, the rookie centerback who has an injured nose and did not take part in the game despite dressing and wearing a protective face mask.
Far Eastern is now looking like the team to beat, once again, brushing aside the two best teams with impunity in a span of eight days. They have the momentum and are a point from league-leading UST, ahead of DLSU on goal difference. They have arguably done the heavy lifting in this round and could be favored to go the rest of the round unbeaten.
But one renewed threat looms on the horizon. Before the nightcap match, UP downed DLSU 2-0 in the 3 pm game, drawing to fifteen points, good for fourth place. Feb Baya with the opener, a lovely volley, and Kintaro Miyagi capping off a magnificent run and pass from Daniel Gadia. UP coach Anto Gonzales also guided the UP ladies to victory, coming from behind to beat UST’s Tigresses 3-1.
But the praise belongs to FEU. The UAAP Season 78 competition always looked like a six-way fight for the final four. But after Saturday, it’s clear that a familiar name is once again the favorite to win it all.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH