Paolo Salenga netted in the first half to lead NU towards a pivotal 1-0 win against Ateneo at the FEU-Diliman Football Field on Sunday afternoon to send the Bulldogs ahead of the Blue Booters in the race for a Final Four slot.
It was a back-and-forth affair in the first 20 minutes of the game as both teams cautiously went for a breakthrough goal that will allow them to control the game’s rhythm. Nico Macapal and Salenga spearheaded NU’s offense but their initial attempts were off the mark. For Ateneo, Paolo Alilam created space for Julian Roxas and Emilio Acosta but neither player troubled the firm NU backline.
NU then took charge after 20 minutes. Macapal received a nifty headed pass from Lawrence Colina and was able to control the ball but had a touch too many, allowing Ateneo keeper JP Oracion to block his shot 23 minutes gone by. A minute later, Salenga’s shot from just inside the box had too much height. 26 minutes in, Macapal again had a clean look at goal but misfired from around 15 yards. A minute before the half hour mark, Acosta fouled Frias from around 25 yards out. Frias took the ensuing free kick which altered the complexion of the game. His delivery looked to reach two Bulldogs in the central area just outside the six-yard box but it sailed into the post where Salenga creeped in to tap the ball into the goal.
Playing behind after Salenga’s ninth goal of the season, Ateneo gathered steam in search for the equalizer before half time. Sensing danger, NU custodian Chris Perocho timely dealt with Ateneo’s advances. On their part, the Blue Booters were presented two good chances to level the score in the last 10 minutes of the opening half. Roxas found Paredes’ cross but failed to get a vital touch to send the ball into the net while Alilam has an option to strike from a nearer area but opted to go for the spectacular, which unfortunately for him did not work as he blasted his shot way off. Before halftime, goalscorer Salenga had two opportunities to cushion the Bulldogs’ advantage but misfired in both instances. Halftime came with NU ahead by a goal to nil.
Second half started slowly, much to the advantage of the Bulldogs who were protecting a narrow lead. Macapal and Acosta had attempts but none were able to hit the target. Seven minutes after the hour mark, Salenga nearly doubled NU’s lead after flicking Elgen Antipolo’s cross but Oracion was well-positioned to prevent the shot from going in. Unable to find a lot of room past a disciplined defending, Ateneo was starved of opportunities. It forced them to rely on occasional, unproductive counter attacks. Their best chance came 15 minutes before time when Andreas Maniquis drilled in a fine pass from a corner but Perocho intervened to regain possession. Full time came with NU holding on to a 1-0 win.
“We’re still breathing up to the last game,” exclaimed NU Coach Wilhelm Laranas while that his wards needed a win as anything else would have dampened their playoff ambitions.
On the other hand, Ateneo’s Coach JP Merida was disheartened with the way his team played the game. “Parang nag-give up na. Nawalan lang kami ng key players, hindi na sila naglaro ng maayos,” he stated. According to Merida, playing with less creativity in the final third also was a huge reason behind not scoring against the defensive-minded Bulldogs.
Both coaches also acknowledged the absence of Ateneo’s experienced duo of Carlo Liay and Wilson Marcelino, who were serving one-game suspensions due to yellow card accumulation, to have worked in favor of the Bulldogs.
The result allows NU to snatch fourth place from Ateneo as they have 23 points, one more than the Blue Booters. Both teams only have a game remaining in the elimination round.