Simon McMenemy and the Loyola Meralco Sparks were disappointed to have been eliminated in the United Football League (UFL) Cup semi-finals by Ceres-La Salle in a gripping 1-0 affair last Tuesday night at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. Although missing out on the opportunity to prove their worth in next term’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup, the Sparks have shown signs of improvement over the past year according to the Scottish coach.
From the coach’s perspective, a huge obstacle to Loyola’s unsuccessful bid for a domestic treble was a shortage in luck. They began the season well by clinching the PFF Smart National Football Championship title against Global FC, who was then the reigning UFL Champions. In the league, they remained in contention until they suffered a poor run of results that saw them drop enough points to lose ground on eventual winners Ceres-La Salle. They had the opportunity to avenge their blowout league defeats to the 2015 Division I Champions when they squared off in the semi-finals, but a couple of moments went against them. Late in the first half, Bradley Grayson was presented a chance to fire his team ahead, but his shot struck the woodwork instead. They were misfortunate again halfway through the second half when Orman Okunaiya zipped his curling effort neatly past the outstretched Tomas Trigo. “I think it kind of sums our season up. We’re not a lucky team. We just don’t seem to get breaks,” the man who led the Azkals to its first AFF Suzuki Cup semifinals ever five years ago observed.
McMenemy thinks that it is all part of the game and merely expressed a bit of frustration as he believes his team deserves something better. “You think things are going well, you think you’re about to make it, you think something great is coming and out of nowhere you get hit by a sucker punch. It makes it really hard to take,” he uttered. Loyola played exhilaratingly well, often generating swift attacks to catch the Ceres defense on the counter. Aside from Grayson’s chance, James Younghusband also had a magnificent attempt denied by Ceres shot-stopper Louie Casas. Meanwhile, the Sparks were comfortable in defending Ceres, whose time on the ball was mostly spent in the middle of the park. McMenemy thought after the match that the game plan was executed nicely but Ceres just had the edge in the end with the 70th minute strike from outside the box.
A single-goal defeat visibly suggests that the Sparks have grown far better than they were when Ceres upended them 5-2 and 6-1 in the league. However, the improvement was simply not enough for them to face Kaya in the final tomorrow. McMenemy knew they entered the semifinals as the underdogs and having seen his players deliver a commendable performance, he could only speak of them nicely. “Fair play to Ceres, they make it very difficult. With the players they have, they’re expected to win things. I’m very proud of my boys the way they played today,” he summed up.
Furthermore, the Scot firmly believes his team have grown into better players from the day he took charge of the club. “We’ve worked very hard behind the scenes to improve our playing style—to be a lot more dangerous in front of goal. If this was last season’s league, then we’ve pushed out Global right until the end and lost out by goal difference,” he went on to say, even indicating that without Ceres, who triumphed in the league straight from promotion, in the picture, Loyola narrowly missed out on beating last year’s champions to the best record among last season’s Division I teams. Heartbreaking as it seems, Loyola will look to redeem some pride when they take on Stallion FC in tomorrow’s third place match. –LGT
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