With pride and a possible 2018 AFC Cup playoff berth at stake, it was the inaugural Philippines Football League regular season-leaders FC Meralco Manila who prevailed.
Three goals, all in the first half, were enough for the home side to walk away with the consolation bronze past Kaya FC-Makati, 3-1, Friday evening at the historic Rizal Memorial Stadium.
After absorbing an early pressure from the visitors, the Sparks went to their team offense to break the deadlock, resulting in an early goal.
Skipper Simon Greatwich received a good delivery from outside and headed the ball into the penalty area. Fortunately for the former Azkals midfielder, Joaco Cañas was there to head the ball into the goal for the opener.
Kaya seemed unperturbed by the score and tried to restore parity. Nonetheless, Manila’s defense disrupted deliveries intended primarily for Robert Lopez-Mendy. Moreover, balls deep into the Sparks’ goal went straight to the hands of keeper Ace Villanueva.
It was not long before Meralco doubled their lead, thanks to Azkal Curt Dizon.
Twelve minutes after the Canas goal, the crafty winger — who has taken over the scoring cudgels for Meralco with the departures of Phil and James Younghusband — found himself virtually unmarked on the left flank and fired a cannonball at the edge of the box for the home team’s second of the night.
Dizon then virtually put the game out of reach in the 25th minute, finishing a spectacular free kick with a left-footed strike past Kayo goalie Ref Cuaresma.
Chances were scarce after that onslaught, as Meralco’s organized defending stood its ground, denying a possible goal back from Kaya.
This continued well into the following period, but the insertion of Joven Bedic and Marvin Angeles worked for Kaya at the start of the second half.
With few chances on the build up, the visitors took their opportunity at set pieces. In the 58th minute, Bedic tapped in a low cross past Villanueva to pull one back.
The goal is something Manila head coach Aris Caslib foresaw and lamented. “In the second half, the players were cautious, never wanting what happened in the semifinals to happen again.”
However, what the Sparks lost in offensive fluidity, they still atoned for in defensive consistency. If not for that strong resistance, Kaya could have extended the match.
Instead, the Meralco defense held and it was an impressive win for them to finish an emotional season after the 90 minutes.
“It was the character of the team that showed up. While we struggled in that latter part, we were able to overcome,” Caslib remarked about the Sparks.
For the former national team mentor, it was the squad’s determination to end the season with a win that carried them through. He said, “A big part of this is the players wanted to get over that hump; and they were able to push it in the end.”
FC Meralco Manila might still get a 2018 AFC Cup playoff berth if the PFL champions go on to clinch a 2018 AFC Champions League slot.
The PFL Final between Ceres-Negros FC and Global-Cebu FC will happen on Saturday evening at the Panaad Park and Football Stadium in Bacolod City.