The Blue Eagles are back in the Final Four. A shocking 87th minute goal from fullback Kendall Colet paved the way for the Ateneo de Manila University men’s football team to escape the University of the Santo Tomas Growling Tigers with a narrow 2-1 win, Sunday afternoon at the FEU-Diliman Football Field.
The first half opened to a heated defensive struggle between the two squads. The Tigers tried to establish their presence on the wing, but the Ateneo wide defenders reacted quickly, rushing to the flanks as soon as the yellow shirts got to the top. The Eagles too struggled to find an easy path into the box, with the Tigers’ own hardworking defense refusing to give the Ateneans any easy looks. As expected, the Eagles readjusted by striking from long range and trying to make the best out of every set piece.
At the tenth minute, Mikko Mabanag, the Eagles’ go-to guy for set pieces came close to drawing first blood, beating out the UST defense to strike from the right post, but his shot sailed past the opposite post before any of his teammates could redirect the ball back into the path of the goal. Seven minutes later, Mabanag gave the Ateneo faithfuls something to cheer about, after a free kick taken from beyond the penalty box ended with the ball whizzing over UST goalie John Rey Catalino and into the top corner of the net. Three minutes later, he came close to repeating the feat, when another free kick taken from the left wing floated into the direction of the goal. Catalino, however, was able to react fast enough to parry the shot away.
The last 15 minutes of the half saw both squads find more ways to cut into the box. At the 30th minute, Jean Mari Clarino came close to scoring against his high school alma mater, going one-on-one with the keeper before striking from the center of the box. His shot however sailed wide above the bar. Two minutes later, Jogi Celiz found himself with an opportunity on the goal from just inside of the box, but his shot went wide past the post.
The last great shot of the half came from Ateneo’s Christian Michael Castillo at the 44th minute, who took advantage of a lull in the UST defense to free himself up for a stealthy inside pass from Carlo Liay. Though able to launch before anyone from UST could trouble him, his shot ended with the ball drifting past the opposite post. At halftime, the score was still 1-0 for Ateneo.
The second half paved way to an aggressive push for the top of the field by the Eagles. At the 49th minute, forward Emilio Acosta came close to extending the lead, after managing to get the UST goalie out of position with a stealthy drive to the goal. He however lost control of the ball, which was immediately cleared off the field by the UST defense as soon as it drifted away from Acosta’s heels.
Though possession stayed with Ateneo for most of the second half, the Tigers made the necessary adjustments, controlling their physicality and preventing the Eagles from winning too many set pieces. Though they struggled to re-establish their hold on the wing earlier in the half, the Tigers’ drive to reclaim the wing bore fruit at the 67th minute, when the team’s leading scorer Steven Anotado easefully received a cross from the right wing after freeing himself up to score for the men in yellow. The score was suddenly tied at 1-1.
The last twenty minutes of the half saw Ateneo scramble to break the deadlock. =Liay took charge for the Ateneans, plunging into the chaos in the box to redirect every free ball into the direction of the goal. The Eagles also found much needed help from Emmanuel Paredes and Julian Roxas, who had a couple of good chances around the 80th minute, but were unable to send anything to the net.
With flaring tempers on the pitch and the Eagles showing signs of frustration, the game looked like it was headed to a draw. But then, with three minutes of regular time left, Colet came to his squad’s rescue. The fullback charged his way into the chaos in the box to collect a ball that came from a botched attempt by his teammates, letting out a powerful kick on the ball and smashing it into the net.
During those dying minutes, the Tigers showed no sign of letting the Eagles take off easily, defending their end of the pitch and keeping their counterattack alive. Despite this, Ateneo’s defenders easily erased any last minute push by the Tigers, and at the whistle, the Eagles were celebrating their return flight to the postseason.
“Isa lang ang goal natin dito, it is to beat UST,” said Ateneo head coach JP Merida in an interview after the game. “Huwag niyo na isipin ang game sa kabilang field (La Salle-NU game). Let’s just focus sa 90 minutes natin against UST para mag-qualify.”
“Towards the end, we were able to regroup. Therefore, we were able to score a goal,” said Ateneo captain Mabanag after the game. “Heart ‘yun.”
UST head coach Marjo Allado meanwhile praised his team’s performance despite the loss and related his young squad’s steady maturity throughout the season. “I think the winning mentality is already there. ‘Yung marking lang nawala.” Coach Allado remains optimistic about his squad’s chances next year, and promises to return stronger.
With the win, Ateneo exits the elimination round with 25 points at fourth place, and will be facing archrivals and no.1 seed De La Salle University in the semifinals on March 1. Meanwhile, UST will settle for a sixth place finish, their worst finish in the history of the program.