It has been a roller coaster ride for the National University Bulldogs in their UAAP Season 78 Men’s Football Tournament campaign. NU started the season well, with wins over University of the East, Adamson University, and a credible draw versus current champions Far Eastern University. However, they experienced two straight losses at the hands of the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of Santo Tomas.
The Bulldogs finally stopped the bleeding last March 5, 2016 (Saturday), when they held a frustrated University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons to a draw at the McKinley Hill Stadium in Taguig. The result was a step in the right direction for the team, and their coach Lem Laranas was pleased that his players finally showed the “heart” he had wanted to see.
Even some of the Bulldogs themselves felt that the draw had been a big improvement compared to the past two games in which they lost. Midfielder Chima Uzoka said, “It was really a good game pero we deserved to win not draw against UP kasi we really played with our hearts and we really deserved to win the game.” Likewise, striker Paolo Salenga was pleased with his team’s performance. “Siguro yung two losses namin kasi kailangan talaga namin kumuha ng puntos. Kung hindi kami kukuha ngayon, mapapag-iwanan kami sa first round. Kailangan dikit lang kami sa top four.”
“We really fought hard because we don’t need to lose all our games kasi we really want to be in the Final Four.”, said Uzoka.
Losses against Ateneo and UST have been painful lessons for the Bulldogs. They had played well in both first halves of those games, but collapsed once the game resumed in the second half. “The heart to win wasn’t there in the last two games kasi we were just playing individually and not as a team”, Uzoka lamented. Salenga agreed with his teammate and admitted that complacency had crept into the Bulldogs. “Relax kami masyado. Parang na-understimate namin yung kalaban namin kasi last season tinalo namin yung dalawang teams na yun so parang nung kinalaban namin sila, nag-relax so natalo kami.”
True to form, NU struggled to impose themselves in the first half against UP. For Salenga, that slow start came from the players’ having been unsettled. He explained, “Siguro sa first half nahirapan kami kasi nag-aadjust pa kami. Nung nag half-time nakapag-adjust si coach (Lem Laranas) kung ano yung gagawin namin kasi yung UP nag-high press sila so kailangan namin mag long balls. Mabibilis naman yung mga top strikers namin, mga flanks namin. So ayun yung plano namin na mag long balls kasi kaya naman namin sa taas.”
On the other hand, Uzoka believed that good defense in that period was what helped them survive the match, particularly the first half. He opined, “Our defenders were really more aggressive.”
League leaders De La Salle University are up next for this inconsistent NU side. The Bulldogs will need to be in top form if they want to at least get a point off the Green Archers. Confidence, though, isn’t a problem for them with how urgent things have become. Uzoka declared, “When we face La Salle on Thursday, I can see a win because we really need to win.” Salenga, however, was more cautious. “One game at a time lang. Focus kami sa next game para makakuha kami ng points ulit.”
There is still a long way to go this season. The game against La Salle is NU’s last match for the first round. The Bulldogs are still haunted by the fact that they had missed the Final Four in Season 77 by the smallest of margins. “Teamwork lang. Magkaisa lang kami. Puso sabi nga ni coach tulad ng pinakita namin sa game namin sa FEU and UP. Sana mag tuloy-tuloy hanggang huling game namin”, said Salenga. No doubt he and the Bulldogs will need to be more consistent against the other top teams if they want to reach the Final Four.
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