Ceres tames Tampines, tops AFC Cup group

Ceres-La Salle FC overcame an hour-long rain delay and a Tampines fightback to secure their first home win in the AFC cup with a score of 2-1 last April 12 at the Panaa-ad Park and Football Stadium. Bienvenido Marañon and Adrian Gallardo made two first half penalties while Billy Mehmet scored for the Singaporean outfit in the second half.

The match had an ominous start when rain fell the hardest just minutes before the kickoff. Both teams marched onto the pitch only for the referee to send them back to the dressing rooms because of thunder and heavy rains. The conditions forced the referee to delay the match by thirty minutes.  The heavy rain subsided but the water-logged pitched forced another thirty-minute delay as it had to be cleared by the local staff just in time for kickoff.

The two teams found the pitch challenging at the start, as some patches still had some water, but it didn’t stop Ceres from being the aggressor at the start. Patrick Reichelt headed a pass towards Gallardo in the box but Tampines’ goalkeeper Joey Sim was quicker on the ball.  Surprise starter Fazrul Nawaz tried to take advantage of the conditions and tested Louis Michael Casas from a distance, twice in the first fifteen minutes, but the keeper was always there to collect.  Bienve tried to return the favor from twenty yards but the shot was well wide.

Ceres was the more aggressive team getting more forays into the box than the visitors. Their aggressiveness were rewarded in the 19th minute when defender Kwon Jun was adjudged handball after another header by Reichelt into the box bounced toward the defender who used his arm to control the ball.  Marañon stepped in for the penalty, sent Sim the wrong way, and coolly slotting the ball into the middle for the 1-0 lead.

The home squad had the chance to double the advantage when Reichelt found some space on the counterattack issuing a cross to a rushing Adri.  His initial attempt was blocked but he recovered the ball and found Adri again in the middle but the striker’s attempt was a foot wide of the top corner.  The visitors had a golden chance to equalize in the half-hour mark when Hafiz Sujad beat captain Sang Min Kim on a counterattack and slotted the ball towards the second post past Casas.  The ball hit the back of the net but Fazrul tried to interfere in the play forcing the linesman to raise the flag for offside.

The S.League leaders started to become very physical, one of such acts was a takedown by Shakir Hamzah on Gallardo in the penalty box.  The referee pointed to the spot and then gave Shakir a yellow for the foul.  Adri doubled the lead after 36 minutes with the striker blasting the penalty to the top corner.

Tampines Coach V. Sundram Moorthy started the match defensively with his best attackers on the bench but the scoreline left him no choice but to bring in Jordan Webb and Billy Mehmet at halftime. The substitutions made a major effect with Tampines controlling the possession and creating dangerous chances in the first fifteen minutes of the second half.

Star-signing Jermaine Pennant was introduced just after the hour mark and made immediate impact on the pitch.  The ex-EPL player initiated a play in the middle laying off to Fazrul who then found Mehmet at the top of the box.  The Irish striker then took a shot from the edge with the ball taking a wicked deflection off Sang Mins boot, going up and over a rooted Casas for the visitors goal in the 64th.

Pennant was again dangerous in the three when his pwefrul shot from twenty yards was only a foot wide of the goal.  The Rovers were getting the better of the attacks forcing Team Manager Ali Go to make a defensive change. Jason Sabio came in for Paul Mulders in the 68th as rightback putting Carli de Murga on the slot vacated by Mulders.

The Busmen started to regain some control by getting plenty of attempts on goal.  Manny Ott made a fine through pass to Bienve for a one-on-one, with Bienve forcing Joey to a fine save.  Bienve then broke through the Tampines line but Noh Raman tackled the Spanish player from behind.  The defender was lucky to only get a yellow on an obvious red card offense.  Ott’s ensuing free kick broke through the wall towards the path of de Murga but the ball didn’t reach him well enough for a pounce on goal.

Tampines then turned on the pressure with a good chance in the 78th minute. The ball skipped past the Ceres defense towards an open Webb whose left footed shot was way over the bar. Pennant tried his luck a minute later but his shot was saved by Casas.  Another free kick to the dangerous area was given buy Carli was there to clear with a header.

In the 83rd, Tampines veteran Noh Rahman kicked Bienve in the stomach but the Ceres player was instead carded for simulation.  Mehmet forged a dangerous header a minute later but it was just wide.  The home squad made two more substitutions to relieve the pressure with Nate Burkey coming on for Bienve and Marwin Angeles replacing Carli in the middle.

Tampines captain Mustafic Fahrudin had the best chance to equalize in the 89th minute from point-blank but his header was wide.  Four minutes of injury time were added on but Ceres held on to secure the 2-1 win and the unbeaten streak in the AFC Cup.

“If you’re leading (by) two goals at home in the first half, its natural that the teams performance will go down in the second half.  But we held on and maintained our organization in defense.  There were few attempts there that our goalkeeper did a lot of crucial saves,” said Ceres Coach Frank Muescan.

Goalkeeper Louis Michael Casas was awarded Man of the Match for his quality performance.  Casas was eager to bounce back from a blunder in the first home game and he was rewarded for his game-changing saves against a tougher opponent. “Because we were really looking forward to this game, the mindset preparation of our players is that we know that we can get three points at home,” the Ceres Coach added.

Ceres now set their sights on the United Football League (UFL) Cup Final on Saturday, April 16, at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila.  They will meet a tough Global FC in the final, a team who beat them by the score of 2-1 in the group stages.  A win by Ceres in the UFL Cup final would give the team a playoff spot in next years’ AFC Cup.

Photos courtesy of Stephen Tan and Ivan Gayares

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