Ceres-La Salle FC became the first ever Philippine football club to qualify for the knockout stages of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup when they withstood FA Selangor throughout a scrappy goalless draw at the Selayang Stadium in Malaysia Thursday evening.
Neither team began the penultimate game of the group stage in lively fashion as a cagey affair ensued in the first 12 minutes of the game. The biggest talking point in that period was an injury picked up by Selangor forward Patrick Wleh from the collision that featured him and Ceres-La Salle defender Kim Sang Min seven minutes into the kickoff. It unsettled Wleh who was eventually replaced by Adam Nor at the 20th minute.
Before Nor came on to the pitch, the home side unleashed two shots, one from Andik and the other from Nazmi Faiz. None of these bothered Ceres-La Salle goalie Louie Casas who simply glanced at their wayward efforts.
After being starved of possession for the most part of the opening half, Ceres-La Salle actually struck the game’s first shot on target at the 29th minute mark. Taking a set piece in a dangerous area, Manny Ott’s attempt was headed off the line by Mohd Azrif. It looked like goalkeeper Norzalan had enough to cover the space, but Mohd Azrif took no chances.
Approaching halftime, Selangor’s Mauro Olivi stepped up by braving his way past the Ceres-La Salle defense. Fourteen minutes before the break, the Argentinean danced around the Ceres-La Salle backline only for his off target effort to be palmed away by Casas. At the stroke of half time, Olivi was at it again. This time, he tried to punish the visitors with a shot from outside the box. While it outstretched the Ceres-La Salle goalkeeper, the attempt was nowhere near the goal.
Unlike in the first half, both teams went for it in the early stages of the second half. Olivi got himself into the box before firing straight to Casas in the 47th minute. Down the other side of of the field a minute later was a Gallardo chance that went begging. Ceres-La Salle’s top scorer in the competition scuffed his shot wide just as the goal was gaping in front of him.
The glorious chance spurred the UFL 2015 champions as it made them more aggressive heading into the hour mark. In the 57th minute, Ceres-La Salle had a penalty claim turned down when Patrick Reichelt was brought down inside the box. Four minutes after that, Ceres-La Salle could have taken the lead anyway when Manny Ott’s corner delivery was pinballed towards Jason Sabio. The defender got his head to the ball but he failed to steer it on target.
Indeed, Ceres-La Salle dominated the first half second half as they looked to go for a winner that may well seal top spot in Group E. Stephan Schröck took the initiative but none of his attempts made any difference as time continued to expire.
The back-and-forth nature of the match in the second half injected the much-needed excitement the game was missing prior to halftime. Desperate to finish their last home game victorious, Selangor acted to swing the momentum in their favor going into the final 20 minutes of action. Casas was prompted to collect Robert Cornthwaite’s header with 19 minutes left. Two minutes after, the hosts thought that they finally broke down the Bacolodnons when Mohd Azrif tucked the ball in. However, the linesman flagged the Malaysian as he was in an offside position when Olivi teed him up.
It raised tension, particularly onto the Malaysians who peppered the Ceres-La Salle with promising but fruitless efforts on goal. Olivi and Nazmi Faiz each had two before the final whistle. Their attempts were either off or blocked anyway. As soon as Olivi’s stoppage time shot was blocked, Ceres-La Salle heard the final whistle knowing that they survived the attacking barrage with a clean sheet and a valuable point.
The draw, paired by Tampines Rovers’ costly 3-2 defeat to already-eliminated Sheikh Jamal, guarantees Ceres-La Salle’s qualification for the knockout stages of Asia’s second tier club competition. In the process, the UFL champions made history by becoming the first Philippine club to go through into the knockout rounds.
The Malaysian side, on the other hand, will have to avoid defeat at Singapore against the wounded Tampines Rovers to qualify together with Ceres-La Salle. It will not be an easy job as the Singaporean side who are licking the wounds caused by two straight losses will be eager to maximize playing at home in order to knockout their rivals from the northern side of the border.
As for Ceres-La Salle, a victory against basement club Sheikh Jamal, a team that they beat 2-0 earlier in Bangladesh, will mean that they will finish the group stages as group leaders. It is something the Negros team will like to play for as they look forward to playing the one-off round of 16 game in their backyard. The two games will be played on the 10th of May.