Redemption was the theme of the day for the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles, who had experienced painful defeats against the likes of the Far Eastern University, University of the Philippines, and De La Salle University early in their UAAP Season 78 Men’s Football Tournament campaign.
A win today against the National University Bulldogs was imperative for them if they wanted to restore their Final Four chances. And the Blue Eagles restored their hopes in wonderful fashion when they recovered from a goal behind to win 3-1. Paolo Salenga gave the Bulldogs the lead (11′) but the Blue Eagles responded well courtesy of Julian Roxas (29′), Xavier Alcuaz (58′), and Javier Ocampo Gayoso (83′).
The first half epitomized how both teams wanted to attack. The Bulldogs relied on intricate play from their forwards Salenga, Nico Macapal and Jay Abalunan, while midfielder Chima Uzoka joined them from midfield. On the other hand, the Blue Eagles mainly relied on their set-piece plays in order for them to score.
NU played another good twenty minutes in the first half. This time, though, the Bulldogs were able convert their possession into a goal. Marole Bungay and Uzoka had their chances from outside the box and a set-piece respectively, but it was an Ateneo error which gifted them the lead.
Ateneo rookie right-back Joseph Poe and midfielder Mikko Mabanag lost the ball in a dangerous position, which the Bulldogs took advantage of. Salenga received the ball from his teammates and unleashed, at the eleventh minute, a powerful shot from outside the box. Ateneo goalkeeper Kenneth James couldn’t have done anything to prevent the goal.
One-nil down and at the risk of experiencing their fourth loss this season, the Blue Eagles injected a sense of urgency after they conceded. Mabanag delivered a good ball in the NU box but Xavier Alcuaz failed to connect with it properly. Mabanag himself had an attempt on goal when he elected to shoot rather than pass from his free kick, but the attempt went over the NU crossbar. Roxas had an attempt on goal afterwards, but his shot from outside the box failed to test Bulldogs goalkeeper Elijah Aban.
It was all Ateneo at that point of the match, as they searched for the goal that would change the game, and perhaps transform their season as well.
Said goal finally arrived for the Blue Eagles in the 29th minute. Paolo Alilam, who played instead of Masyu Yoshioka, eluded the NU defense and won a free kick from the left side of the box. Up stepped Mabanag, and his dead ball specialty paid dividends when Roxas headed the ball home. The Blue Eagles morphed into something entirely different compared to their lethargic selves as they pressed the NU backline more. That renewed vigor allowed Renko Gaudiel to win the ball in midfield after Uzoka lost it, but it led to a shot over the bar by Mabanag.
Salenga and Macapal had chances to return the lead to NU before halftime but James was alert to thwart. The first half ended a goal apiece and it was fair for both teams as they had their chances on goal.
The Bulldogs and the Blue Eagles evoked a sense of déjà vu in the second half. If NU had floundered after halftime against the University of Santo Tomas, then the opposite could be said of Ateneo when they faced UP. Goalscoring chances were limited as both teams were toe-to-toe in this period.
Not only did the Blue Eagles rely on set-pieces, but their midfielders and forwards combined better to create chances from open play. Ocampo Gayoso was sent on to the pitch and he immediately threatened the NU goal but his grounder was way off the mark. The Blue Eagles also kept possession better, and their efforts were rewarded in the 58th minute. Mabanag provided another quality ball from a corner and center-back Alcuaz rose highest to head the ball in with Aban helpless.
The goal was another kick to the gut for the Bulldogs, and they tried to level the scores but their possession amounted to nothing as Ateneo’s James was well protected by his defense. Save for a Jekar Sullano free kick, NU struggled to create that crucial final ball.
On the other hand, Ateneo gladly sat deep and threatened NU on the counterattack. The Blue Eagles’ resilience were rewarded when Ocampo Gayoso found space in between the Bulldogs’ defense, and calmly directed the ball to the bottom right corner of the NU goal to effectively kill the contest in the 83rd minute.
The final whistle blew and Ateneo’s players, coaches, and fans were understandably overjoyed with their victory. Today’s win could be the vital result the Blue Eagles needed in order to create a consolidated push towards the Final Four, and maybe the championship. While it may be just one win, the way it was achieved will go a long way to serve as a confidence booster for the Blue Eagles.
As for NU, the players were disheartened after a second straight loss, and their coaches might wonder whether it’s more of a mental issue rather than a tactical or physical one — one that might be the biggest hindrance for the Bulldogs this season.
Ateneo head coach JP Merida was satisfied with the result and explained that he pushed his players to win today. “Talagang pinafeel ko sa kanila kung ano yung naririnig ko sa labas. Sabi ko, ‘Papayag ba kayo na ganito lang iniisip sa atin?’ Magaling naman kayo eh. Ang kailangan lang natin every game is yung dapat meron tayo palaging fighting heart.’ So at least maganda nag bounce back sila sa mga narinig namin. Talagang na motivate sila dun na they proved na hindi sila ganun, na kaya nila.”
A resurgent University of Santo Tomas are next for Ateneo, and Merida understood the importance of the game. “Plano namin is we need to prepare against UST. They beat FEU, NU then they drew La Salle. Talagang till the 90 minutes, hindi sila nag-give up until mag last whistle and referee.”
It was win number two for the Blue Eagles this season, while the Bulldogs experienced the exact opposite result for the second straight match. Ateneo now have six points in the standings, while NU are above them by one, at seven points.
March 5, 2016 (Thursday) is the next matchday for both the Blue Eagles and Bulldogs with the McKinley Hill Stadium designated as the venue. As mentioned above, Ateneo will play UST at 7:00PM while NU will play three hours earlier against UP.