Arnel Amita left it late as his follow-up strike in extra time earned the FEU Tamaraws the opportunity to defend the throne as they squeaked past the UP Maroon Booters, 1-0, to reach the UAAP Season 77 Men’s Football Finals at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium earlier tonight.
It was a game of two halves in normal time. UP held the ball slightly more in the first 45 minutes, but FEU responded by controlling the second half. The game had a slow start, as both teams were trying to decipher each other’s plans. Winger, Rogie Maglinas got the ball rolling with a cross towards Jinggoy Valmayor eight minutes into the match. The forward collided with Michael Menzi, FEU’s goalkeeper of the day. As a result, the UP striker’s shot was easily gathered by FEU’s defenders, who decided to clear it as their goalie needed treatment. Five minutes later, UP’s aggression almost yielded a goal. In a crowded FEU box, Daniel Gadia had room to shoot just outside the six-yard box, but it struck the post. It was the closest chance for UP to find the net in the match. At the 19th minute, Michael Simms sent a cross, but it had too much height for Jinggoy Valmayor to get a touch on it. The loose ball went to Maglinas, but had a poor first touch, placing the ball out for a goal kick with his misfired attempt on the first time.
Meanwhile, FEU punched their first chance 21 minutes in. Joshua Mulero played 1-2 with Jhan Jhan Melliza, but the defender’s shot missed the target. Prior to that, they played with long, accurate passes, but UP got well into those plays, forcing mistakes from FEU’s players. The next few minutes saw rare exchanges between the two teams with UP opting to be more patient in attacking. Free kicks from both UP’s Valmayor and Paolo Bugas did not create chances. FEU began to bring more threats soon after. Melliza and striking partner, Eric Giganto, took the initiative in spearheading the attack, but their efforts were sufficiently impeded by the UP central defender duo of Feb Baya and Ian Clarino. A swift yet unproductive array of attacks capped off an uneventful first half, where neither team scored a go-ahead goal.
Unlike in the first half, FEU started the second strongly, forcing the Maroons to react most of the time. With momentum on their side, the reigning champions produced loads of shots that caused problems for UP. Melliza and Giganto combined for three good chances that were thwarted in the opening eight minutes of the second half. While they were busy on the attack, it left space for UP to set up quickly on the counter. They did so at the 54th minute, when Simms’ ball from the right wing located Maglinas, who was not able to hit the ball with an acrobatic bicycle kick attempt. Another opportunity to catch FEU off guard came three minutes later, but Mulero shielded the ball against the speeding Valmayor, eventually recovering the ball only to not make anything out of it as he committed a needless foul.
After that quick stretch, FEU continued to dominate. In just six minutes, FEU got to string five chances together–highlighting the Tamaraws’ capability to play well with high-tempo football courtesy of usual suspects up front. Nonetheless, UP held on to prevent their opponents from getting the lead. On their part, UP had a short spell on the attack, but the senior players were not able to take advantage of the breaks presented to them. They would end the match rueing those missed chances as FEU sustained rhythm in the last 20 minutes or so of normal time up to the two halves of extra time. Near chances were not enough to change the score before the 90 minutes expired, but it set pace for the champions to control the rest of the encounter. Full time with both teams still scoreless meant that 30 more minutes were required to break the tie.
Early into extra time, FEU looked to have grabbed the lead when Audie Menzi’s free kick went past Villanueva. To the relief of the Maroons, the referee ordered a retake as the Tamaraw midfielder took it too early. The second try sailed wide, but their perseverance paid off after constant pressure resulted in a mistake made by Clarino at the 97th minute. The rookie defender handled the ball inside his team’s box, enough for the Tamaraws to take the lead should they make something out of the penalty attempt. Amita took responsibility in putting his team ahead by nailing the lucrative spot kick. Season 76 Best Goalkeeper Villanueva actually parried away Amita’s shot, but the latter was just at the right place for a rebound, which he slotted with ease to hand the Tamaraws the advantage.
Falling behind, UP had opportunities to force a penalty shootout at the very least through set pieces, but Valmayor’s free kicks were telegraphed by the FEU players, who seemed to have learned their lesson following the last time they have witnessed the graduating UP striker in such situation. After a tiring 120 minutes of football played, FEU held on to the narrow lead, and booked a return trip to the finals next week against La Salle.
“Maganda ‘yung game. Kahit nag extra time na, ginawa pa rin namin ‘yung game namin [focusing on] team play,” shared FEU Assistant Coach Dexter Chio. The Tamaraws have prepared well to make sure that they will get past the semifinal round and keep their hopes of winning the second consecutive title in men’s football. As for next week’s winner-take-all affair with La Salle, Chio opened that they will spend the week figuring a way past their opponents, who remain the only team they have yet to defeat this season.
The loss officially shuts UP’s season, a shortened one considering that the team has made four straight UAAP Finals appearances. “I thought we really played well in the first half. We didn’t really let them settle. I thought we controlled most of the first half. Unfortunately, in the second half, nag-change ‘yung tide,” UP Coach Anto Gonzales assessed. He was convinced that his players would struggle with the way the team has played their previous matches, but the way the Maroons fought in the match seemed to have restored the coach’s faith in them against the in-form Tamaraws. “Hats off to the boys for really digging deep. It was difficult to somehow stick together despite the adversity,” he elaborated.
The UAAP Football Championships in both men’s and women’s divisions will be disputed on March 8 at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium starting with FEU and UP squaring off for the crown in women’s football at 2pm. After that, La Salle will challenge FEU for all the marbles, as the winner will seize the UAAP men’s football trophy.
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