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Okunaiya strike books Ceres-La Salle a trip to the UFL Cup Final

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A clinical finish by Oladipo Babsola Okunaiya midway through the second half sent Ceres-La Salle FC to the Final of the United Football League (UFL) Cup. The lone goal separated the Bacolodnons from the Loyola Meralco Sparks in a tightly-contested semifinals clash Tuesday evening at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.

The two teams, who finished within the top three in the recently-concluded UFL Season, entered the match in high spirits. Both of them produced wins of huge margins in the earlier stages. One could infer that the bulk of goals would end once these two sides face each other, and despite Ceres beating Loyola by a cumulative margin of eight goals in the league, it turned out to be a close game as what most followers of the clubs had expected. If those scores in previous matches indicated something, it was that Ceres were foreseen to make an immediate surge. It was clearly the case as they had a better opening 20 minutes or so in the match, often causing problems to the Loyola backline. They had a golden chance to claim the advantage in as early as the third minute. Patrick Reichelt found himself with acres of space in the box but was unable to keep his balance, consequently losing control of the ball. At the 16th minute, Lee Jeong Woo sent a nifty pass to Reichelt who finished his attempt well past Trigo, but the linesman’s flag was up for offside called on the Philippine international. Aside from Lee and Reichelt, Juani Guirado and Martin Steuble also spurned a chance each off target in the first 20 minutes of the encounter.

Loyola then burst out from playing behind the ball to create chances from brilliant counter-attacking football. Phil Younghusband, playing as a central attacking midfielder, worked well from winning the ball to finding teammates who could make things happen in the attacking third. His brother James also had the same goal, although he was doing it from the left flank as a wing back. The duo sought to find Bradley Grayson, their team’s tenacious target man who had the incredible record of scoring 10 goals in the last eight games he played for Loyola. Eight minutes before halftime, Phil drilled a neat through ball into the path of Grayson, who took his time well to shoot past Ceres goalie Louie Casas. The Englishman had a go a couple of steps into the 18 yard box, but was unluckily denied by the crossbar. The Negros team was alarmed by such play that they wasted no time in trying to seize the initiative before referee Clifford Daypuyat blew the half-time whistle. Bienvenido Marañon, one of Ceres’ deadly finishers, tested Loyola netminder Tomas Trigo two minutes later. Overall, chances were few and far in between as both teams’ defenses stood firm in fending off each other’s attacks.

In the second half, Ceres resumed their dominance on the ball. They played to their pace and the only way the Sparks could punish them is by making mistakes on defense. Although Loyola nearly troubled the Ceres back row with a Curt Dizon cross falling just inches from the goal line. Fortunately for the Negrenses, no one in black shirts were there to tap the ball in. Instead, the rock rolled harmlessly for Ceres to get hold of it anew. The Bacolod team frustrated their opponents, who gave away plenty of free kicks inside their half. Loyola looked fine with that set up though, as they appear to embrace such positions comfortably. More often than not, Ceres’ dead ball plays ended up being cleared or sent out of play. It also offered the Sparks a platform to rush forward with the aim of catching the Ceres defense flat on the break. Such approach almost gave Loyola the lead, but James’ shot was parried away by Casas at the 55th minute. Seven minutes later, just after a Ceres attacking sequence, Trigo handed his team’s adversaries a window to claim the go-ahead goal. After clumsily dropping the ball, he rushed to claim it back but that was considered an infringement of the rules by the official, who awarded an indirect free kick to Ceres. Marañon fired his shot wastefully into the wall.

As minutes went by, the desire to grab the lead was mounting. Both teams were often derailed in the middle of the pitch, but when Ceres brought the ball near the box, they took the most out of it. Okunaiya whipped his shot from around 20 yards to put his team ahead. The finish was sublime, offering no chance for Trigo to keep it from bulging the bottom corner of the net. From the moment Ceres went ahead, Loyola naturally played more aggressively. Their attacking runs were promising, but it lacked the finishing needed to supply an equalizer. The closest they had of tying the match came three minutes before time. Phil located Grayson the same manner Lee saw Reichelt in the previous half. No goal was disallowed, however, as play was halted even before Grayson took aim on goal as the English striker was deemed offside. Time, which was on Ceres side at that moment, soon ran out, which signals Ceres’ right to face Kaya for all the marbles on Friday.

Ceres-La Salle coach Ali Go was pleased to have steered his team a step closer to an enviable “double” but insists that it took them a slice of luck to get there. “It was a very exciting game. We’re just lucky that the game went our way,” he said. Go also suggested that his team’s commitment to their game plan bore fruit, accomplishing it “from the beginning until the end” according to him. They now have two days to prepare for an intense duel against Kaya FC, who had the fortune to emerge victorious over Stallion FC via penalties in the other semifinal played nearly three hours before Ceres went to action. The colossal match whose winner will be crowned as the 2015 UFL Cup Champions will be held still at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium, 8:15 PM on Friday, August 28. — LGT

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