The penultimate week of UAAP Season 77 Football Tournament’s Elimination Round turned out to be eventful. The week started in dramatic fashion when a team in men’s football that was beaten from behind in their previous match responded by overturning a deficit to boost their hopes of making a maiden playoffs appearance. Two days later, another team, this time in the women’s football division, offered themselves a chance of playing UAAP football come March but was eventually denied by a neighbouring team destined to compete with a reigning champion squad. Over the course of the weekend, three teams in the men’s division entered the semi-final picture with only a spot left to be disputed by two squads which had the occasion of crossing each other’s paths heading into the conclusion of the elimination round.
Let us cut to the chase and start unravelling all the stories that emerged from the previous week’s UAAP Season 77 Football Tournament.
UP, FEU, DLSU guarantee Final Four places
Winning all of their matches this week, the three teams regularly in the Final Four since the format was introduced back in Season 75 made sure that it stays that way for at least another season when UP, FEU, and DLSU barged into the semi-finals. Beaten finalists in the two previous seasons, the UP Maroons marked their entry to the Final Four by earning a low-key 2-0 triumph against the UE Red Warriors on Saturday night. Less than 24 hours after, FEU and DLSU almost simultaneously bagged wins against other bottom three squads UST and Adamson, earning them rights to play at the iconic Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. Last season, the Tamaraws marched on to the finals where they eventually claimed the title by eliminating La Salle 2-1 in the semis. What is only uncertain for these teams are the names of their opposition come March 1 but it is sure that two of them will play against one another.
As far as UP Coach Anto Gonzales is concerned, his team still has a lot of room for improvement. The Maroons have won three of their last four games but the mentor has always underlined the importance of addressing issues towards making it back to the finals. After the 1-0 victory against NU, he was unhappy for he reckoned that his team played scrappily in order to pick up a favourable result. Then, he was not too ecstatic with the 4-1 win versus UST as his wards plainly capitalized on faulty Thomasian defending while also committing lapses of their own on defense. As of late, he thought that the team did not play much to their strengths against the rugged Red Warriors of UE. On a bright note, Gonzales recognized his team’s determination in grinding out a 3-3 stalemate with rivals FEU courtesy of Jinggoy Valmayor’s late equalizer. Going into the playoffs seems to be a norm for a team with top quality players accompanied by high standards and expectations. “We’ll play our best every game. In terms of matchups, we’re not really trying to fix anything,” declared Gonzales. They will square off with La Salle in what may be a semis preview on Thursday before rounding up the season versus Adamson on Sunday.
After the 6-0 dismantling of the hapless Golden Booters of UST, Tamaraws’ Skipper Eric Giganto spoke about his team’s relentless desire to keep the title in their hands. “Hindi pa kami kumpiyansa hangga’t ‘di pa namin nakukuha ‘yung championship,” the league’s top scorer said after slotting in 4 of his 15 goals this season last Sunday. The team acknowledges that all the teams in the league have been preparing well against the Season 76 Champions. With that in mind, Giganto, together with the rest of the team, thinks that they need to remain focused towards achieving the ultimate goal. The Tamaraws are hopeful of finishing the eliminations on top but failure to do so does not spell catastrophe, particularly since the twice-to-beat advantage for the top two teams has been eradicated with the league using a knockout, winner-takes-all format this season. What would hurt the streaking Tamaraws is losing another key player en route to the playoffs, leading them to play the remaining elimination round game against UE with great caution to prevent injuries and suspensions. Last season’s MVP Paolo Bugas was sidelined in the duration of the second round but may return to action just in time to help his team defend the title in March.
La Salle Captain Gio Diamante, meanwhile, identified the lack of killer instinct in front of goal as a main concern moving forward. Despite staying unbeaten in 12 matches, DLSU has only scored five goals at most inside 90 minutes. While this highlights the team’s exemplary display in keeping opponents from scoring, Diamante thinks the team has what it takes to put the ball into the net more often than they have done. They may have given away just 0.75 goals per game but has also normed just 1.67 goals per match which is a low number considering the amount of possession they played. Against lower opposition, they managed to average a measly winning margin of 1.5, far less than what FEU (4.8) and UP (3.8) have this season. On the bright side, La Salle knows that it does not matter much for they are bound to compete against tougher teams from now on. Although winning just once against four of the league’s five best teams, DLSU has been showcasing solidarity and resiliency as they have yet to lose a match and have always recovered from falling behind to earn a point. Asked what it would take for his team to get past the semis where they have been stuck in the two previous editions, Diamante responded, “It’s really important that we really play as a team and we give everything we’ve got. It’s critical that we don’t create lapses. We’ll try to play the best that we can.” They have opportunities to get a glimpse of what this year’s Final Four matchup would be like when they take on UP and NU—two teams probable of facing the men in green-and-white on March 1—this week.
Contrasting fortunes favour NU over Ateneo in race for postseason football
Not long ago, in fact just two years before, Ateneo worked their way towards bringing home the UAAP Men’s Football title by winning their last three playoff games through penalty shootouts. Prior to that, they strung up the best record in the league after 12 pulsating matches, giving them the most favourable chance of claiming the crown. In the same year, the NU Bulldogs entered the UAAP football scene with a crop of young footballers receiving overwhelming defeats while celebrating a monumental draw against then defending champions UP—easily their best game of that season. Fast forward to this year when the vastly-improved Bulldogs sport a better record than the Blue Booters following last Sunday’s 1-0 win against the Season 75 kings. It’s marvellous how things change in just a relatively short amount of time.
It started last Thursday when King Bulldog Paolo Salenga scored the goal to complete his team’s 2-1 comeback win over UST and keep them in contention. Failure to win that match would have put them in a disadvantageous position even if they went on to win their last two matches so the victory was greeted with enthusiasm. On the same day, the Ateneans were slammed by the rampant Tamaraws, 4-0; opening room for NU to leapfrog Ateneo in the standings by beating them on Sunday. Thanks to Salenga, whose 29th minute goal spelled the difference in the match, the Bulldogs are now one step away from making it to the Final Four. All it would take is a win against La Salle. NU Coach Wilhelm Laranas knows that it would take a lot of effort in beating DLSU, a team that has always beaten them in the UAAP. But with the way his players have been playing, his belief has grown firm. “As long as they [NU players] play their best, I don’t think mahihirapan kami,” he said.
Yet all is not lost for Ateneo whose win against UST is simply not enough to enter the semis. That result needs to be accompanied by NU’s failure to defeat La Salle. Positively for the lads of Loyola Heights, it is a strong likelihood given that the Bulldogs lost to DLSU in the first round while they edged UST in their previous encounter as well. Although it has to be considered that lightning may not strike twice as every game is sui generis. Coach JP Merida has been worried about his team’s performance in their last three games where they only amassed 3 of the possible 9 points; barely winning against Adamson while also suffering disheartening losses to FEU and NU. He is hopeful of two things coming into the 22nd of February. First, he hopes that the boys will find a way to play with immense creativity and desire as they aim to break the slump with a much-needed win. Second, he wishes that their friends from Taft will make things harder for the Bulldogs, an absolute certainty according to DLSU captain Gio Diamante who said that the team will look to win every game until the season ends. The biggest obstacle in Ateneo’s quest to rejoin the Final Four cast is UST. With nothing more to lose, the team bound to end the season in sixth place will look to finish the year with a win in order to infuse a winning culture to the young Golden Booters as far as UST Coach Marjo Allado is concerned.
Lady Maroons shut doors with win versus UST; arrange duel with Lady Tamaraws
In what looked like a roller-coaster season for the UP Lady Maroons, a little bit of certainty is welcome. They won their first three games before losing twice in the last three games prior to the game against UST. Their finals bid was placed in jeopardy as UST and Ateneo racked up points while UP only managed to pick up a point in the same period after levelling late to deny Ateneo of a win. Mary Rose Obra had the Midas’ touch last Sunday as she struck twice to seal her team’s entry to the finals following a 3-1 come from behind win against the Thomasians.
“I thought today was our best game from our last four games. The girls really worked hard today so they deserve the win,” UP Women’s Football Team Coach Anto Gonzales stated after the match who also admired his team’s determination towards claiming a win from a losing position. “They really dug deep. I thought our midfield played fantastic today, especially their work rate [in] defending, winning balls. They didn’t really let the midfielders of UST settle so I thought that was the key in the game,” he added.
Moving forward, the Lady Maroons still have to play against La Salle on Saturday to cap off the elimination round. Despite their assured entry in the finals, Gonzales does not want to take the game against DLSU lightly. “We still have to keep high standard of play and still improve kung ano pang kaya naming ma-improve,” he shared while also revealing that he is likely to give second-stringers playing time. The season series between FEU and UP is even with one win each but the back-to-back defending champions hold a slight edge on aggregate at 2-1. That piece of statistic is trivial nonetheless as what will matter most between the two teams is how the game on March 8 will end.
Three-way race for third place spices up last elimination round game week
Ateneo, La Salle, and UST have all probably been gutted as UP marched on to secure the right to battle FEU in the UAAP women’s football championship game on March 8 at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. A day before UP’s triumph against UST, Ateneo recorded an enormous 3-1 victory against FEU thanks in large to midfield general Camille Rodriguez whose goal and assist were huge in restoring her squad’s push for a finals slot. Though Mary Obra and the rest of the UP Lady Maroons have ruled the three teams out officially, they will end the season with everything to play for as they compete for the bronze.
Although it is always best to finish the tournament with a win, it is not the only motive for UST and La Salle. As mentioned last week, the two universities are known for their supreme competence in almost all sports. With the third to fifth places still far from settled, they will look to upstage each other to contribute amply in the UAAP General Championship campaigns. “Ayaw naming matapos ‘yung season na nasa last. At least kung manalo kami against Ateneo, may chance kaming mag third,” uttered UST Coach Judal Sorito after the loss to UP on Sunday. On to the other side of the GC race, La Salle’s Assistant Coach Alvin Ocampo identified finishing above UST as the second objective of the team. Given the circumstances, Rodriguez and her team’s coach Bob Manlulo declared that they will leave everything behind to go for the win to get the best out of what they can.
Right now, Ateneo and La Salle are level on points with eight points apiece but are separated by the former’s better goal difference. UST, in last place with six points, stand a chance of finishing in third with a win against Ateneo matched by a UP win against La Salle. They could also beat Ateneo by seven goals and hope that La Salle will get a draw at most against UP. La Salle, meanwhile, would have to win by a greater margin of at least three goals than Ateneo should they both win on the last day, giving the Ateneans the upper hand. But far worse than their rivals from Taft and Ateneo will slip possibly to fifth—somewhere no team desires to finish, especially with the way this season has been tightly contested.
Young Falcons overwhelmed but determined in debut season
The Adamson Soaring Falcons are the newest kids on the block. A team composed of players with no prior experience playing in the UAAP, not much was expected from the group coached by Nolan Manito. They are still yet to get at least a point in their first 12 matches in the league but they have certainly made waves with the way they competed against some of the UAAP’s best squads. They held firm for 83 minutes against NU, only losing to a penalty knocked home by Paolo Salenga. Then, the Falcons challenged La Salle to a narrow 3-2 loss before experiencing two more close defeats at the hands of UE and UST. The trend changed just before Christmas when the Falcons were unsurprisingly but masterfully thrashed 6-0 by UP. On the other side of the Holiday Break, they returned to UAAP football by suffering a 9-1 loss to FEU, the worst of the season so far. After that, the team kept on fighting anew and have picked up narrow defeats with margins not more than three goals except for a 6-0 thrashing against FEU
Bless Brian Jumo II spoke about the way they have been playing after their most recent loss to La Salle on Sunday. They have been easily dampened by goals scored against them by the opposition—a sign of the team’s glaring youth, both as young players and as a young team collectively. Jumo II also interestingly noted the team’s players have been fans of their opponents, notably the Maroons and the Tamaraws. “Nakakakaba kasi sila ‘yung defending champion at saka naka second place. At saka ini-idolize namin sila. Medyo nakakapanibago,” he disclosed. That seems to be apparent as Adamson has a goal difference of -20 having only scored once in three games they have played against the two teams so far. Against the rest of the league, the Falcons racked up eight goals while letting in 23, for a total goal difference of -15—clearly better despite spanning more games.
The best thing about Adamson’s young players is that it could only get better from here on. NU had a rough start in the UAAP but shortly they established themselves as legitimate contenders. Perhaps, the losses of today will shape the Adamson Rookie Class of 2014-15 into a championship-chasing squad sooner or later. The Falcons will meet their idols in maroon on the last day of the elimination round, hopeful of giving the Final Four-bound team a tough game to end the inaugural season of their return to the UAAP on a high—win, lose or draw.