An injury time goal from Paolo Salenga gave the National University Bulldogs three much needed points, as the football tournament’s dark horses reaffirmed their drive for a spot in the Final Four with a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the University of Santo Tomas Golden Booters Wednesday afternoon at the FEU Diliman Football Field.
The Golden Booters established their presence in the wing and at the top of the field right at the opening whistle, and were rewarded early for their spirited display. Three minutes into the first half, Jean Mari Clarino managed to keep his composure and smoothly collect a pass from Jopridale Molino, and before anyone from NU could arrive to compromise his position, a strike from the center of the box sent the ball flying past Bulldog goalie Chris Perocho and into the net. The Tigers promptly celebrated the early lead.
The early goal served as a wake-up call for NU, who fought to take control of the flow of the game and dominate possession of the ball. Paolo Salenga had a couple of good tries in the first half, establishing himself as a threat, but all his shots were wide or stopped in their tracks by UST goalie John Rey Catalino.
Though no longer in control of the ball, the UST defenders managed to block off the Bulldogs’ passing routes, and true enough, the NU forwards struggled to find a way to cut into the penalty box and strike from their usual comfort spots. At the 34th minute, Salenga almost equalized for the Bulldogs, collecting the ball amidst the clutter in front of the goal, but the shot was immediately redirected by a Tiger defender.
With only ten minutes left in the half, both teams’ midfields figured in a struggle to get the ball to their comfort zones. Steven Anotado, the Tigers’ leading scorer found himself attacking from the left wing, but ultimately failing to extend the UST lead. At the 35th minute, he came close to adding to his season’s tally, escaping the defenders and striking from the left wing, but the shot turned out weaker than was desirable and was easily scooped up by the NU keeper. He had another try from the same spot ten minutes later, just before the 45th minute clocked in, but once again the shot from the left wing was effortlessly stopped by Perocho. At the half, the score was still 1-0.
Both teams opened the second half with an aggressive display. At the 50th minute, Efren Menares Jr. came close to extending the tally, heading in a lob from the left wing, but his shot was knocked off course easily by a parry from an NU defender. Darwin Busmion reacted in time to rebound the shot, but once more an NU defender had a tap on the ball before Busmion could send the ball in the direction of the net. NU’s Francis Jay Abalunan on the other end came close to equalizing for the Bulldogs, striking from the left wing after finding himself with enough space and a good look, but his shot sailed wide over the net.
The 60th minute saw the Bulldogs regain their hold on the flow of the ball, with Patrick Valenzuela finally able to cut into the box and strike from his comfort zone. At the 64th minute, it was Valenzuela who finally kicked NU’s campaign back to life, forcing his way in front of the goal to receive the corner kick from teammate Abalunan and send the ball into the net with a forceful header, giving the Bulldogs their much needed equalizer.
With NU keeping possession of the ball, the Bulldogs’ forwards found themselves striking as they pleased from the perimeter of the box. Salenga, whose flicks kept the UST keeper on his toes for the first half, once again took the striking reins for NU. However, despite another series of good tries, Salenga remained unable to send the ball into the net.
The last 20 minutes saw temperatures rising, with both teams scrambling to get the much coveted tiebreaker. Though NU dominated possession of the ball, their strikers found themselves struggling to find ways to score against UST goalie Catalino.
Then in the middle of injury time, Salenga gave the NU faithful something to cheer for. Exploiting a lull in the Tigers’ defense, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer stealthily maneuvered his way past the left wing and into the box, and before anyone from UST could react, launched a powerful shot that sent the ball flying past Catalino and into the net. The Tigers barely had any time to set up one last try at salvaging a point, and as the last whistle was blown, it was the Bulldogs celebrating on the pitch.
“It was a whole different team pagdating ng second half. They were not performing really well in the first half, but pagdating ng second half, we all knew that we would bounce back dahil sa spirit pa lang nila pursigidong manalo,” said NU head coach Wilhelm Laranas after the game. The Bulldogs are still at fifth in the standings, but have a good chance of making their way into the top four should they win their next two games.
“This season is a lesson, and we’re preparing for next season,” said UST head coach Marjo Allado after the game. “Hopefully ’pag nandito na ang mga seniors, naka-experience na ang mga ito [his current players]. Siguro, hindi na mangyari ulit ito [losing record].” With the loss, the Tigers stay at the sixth place, and have been eliminated from Final Four contention.