With its first three matches in the AFC Cup slated at home, Philippines Football League champion Ceres-Negros hopes to capitalize on its advantage and gain a headstart in its group in the continental club competition.
Fresh off a stellar run in AFC Champions League qualifying — where they narrowly missed out on a spot in the main draw — the Busmen will open their Group G bid against Svey Rieng of Cambodia on Tuesday at Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila.
The Busmen will also host Than Quang Ninh of Vietnam on Feb. 25 in their second home match.
The duel with the Vietnamese side should have been an away fixture for the Busmen, but AFC had to swap the schedule with the Ceres’ home game. The Vietnamese government has temporarily stopped sporting events in the country as a precaution against the nCoV.
Indonesian champion Bali United will also visit Rizal Memorial Stadium on March 11 for the clash with the Busmen, whose matches have been moved to Manila as the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City is unavailable.
“We’re counting on the support of Filipino football fans in our matches at Rizal Memorial Stadium,” said Ceres captain Stephan Schrock.
The midfielder has raved about the energy of the crowd in the Southeast Asian Games, when he skippered the Under-22 Azkals. Last month, Ceres drew almost 4,000 fans for the AFC Champions League match against Shan United of Myanmar.
The strong start could spell the difference for Ceres as far as coach Risto Vidakovic is concerned. Only the top two teams in the group will advance to the zonal semifinals.
“There are no secrets when we play because the information is always available so we have to focus on our strengths,” said the Serbian mentor, who led the Busmen to the AFC ASEAN zone title in 2017 and the knockout stages in the next two years.
“It’s a really tough group again for us, so the players really have to raise their level. Playing at home hopefully gives us a good start.”
The return of Manny Ott gives Vidakovic a solid option at midfield. Ott was part of the side that won the ASEAN zone title and made the final a year later.
“It feels good to be back home,” said Ott, who was sidelined by a shin injury for the majority of last season when he was in Thailand.
“I’m just trying to settle in the last few days, but I’m looking forward to the match on Tuesday.”