Written by Lorenzo del Carmen and Brian Tamayao
With the UAAP taking a week-and-a-half break, all eight men’s football teams enjoyed much-needed time to recover and reflect as they brace for a gruelling month. Before the action resumes this Thursday, we compiled an array of talking points about each team’s progress so far in the competition.
Ateneo Blue Eagles – Letting youth take over
The Ateneo Blue Eagles have had a mixed campaign so far. Alongside routine wins against Adamson University and University of the East, Ateneo have struggled to at least a draw against the likes of the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, and Far Eastern University. Ateneo were thrashed, 5-2, by FEU in what had been their worst performance of the season. The UP and La Salle games were quite winnable for the Katipunan-based squad, but they fumbled in both of those games as well. Perhaps the biggest result Ateneo have right now is that, 3-1, win against National University.
It has been a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ that kind of season for Ateneo. Blue Eagles head coach JP Merida has been forced to shuffle his pack constantly in order to find the right mix. Dropped to the bench were the veterans JP Oracion and Kendall Colet, while rookies such as Kenneth James and Joseph Poe were called up to take their place. In attack, rookies Javier Ocampo Gayoso and Masyu Yoshioka have taken the initiative to lead from the front.
Season 78 has been hard to predict and there are still many twists and turns yet to come. Ateneo currently have 15 points, the same as NU and UP. Whether or not the Blue Eagles will make the Final Four, at least one consolation for them this season is knowing the kids are alright for future campaigns to come.
Adamson Soaring Falcons – Avoid getting demoralized as they grow their wings
All things considered, Season 78 has already been a success for the Adamson Soaring Falcons. Adamson finally got their first win in UAAP Football after a decade against UE in the first round. Bless Brian II Jumo assisted his brother Bless Brian I Jumo, who then scored at the 88th minute. With that win, the Soaring Falcons have accrued more points compared to the whole of Season 77.
Indeed, Adamson have evidently improved in Season 78. Aside from the win, the Soaring Falcons have developed a certain resilience. They may have lost some games early in the season, they made their opponents work for all three points each time. That all changed, though, when they faced La Salle in the first round. The resilience went out of the window when the Green Archers trumped the Soaring Falcons, 0-6, at the Moro Lorenzo Field in Ateneo. Following that loss, Adamson suffered three successive lopsided defeats occurred. FEU defeated them, 0-4, to end the first round, then they succumbed, 0-7, to both NU and Ateneo in a span of four days to start the second round.
The players already look demoralized at this point, and things may get worse until the season ends. Four of the five teams they have yet to meet are in the hunt for playoff spots. With goal difference possibly a factor in deciding who gets in, those team’s sights are set on maximizing the opportunity of facing the league’s youngest — and currently the most vulnerable — team. Coming fresh off the break, the Falcons should refuse to let anyone tear them apart. They have done so early in the season, so they might as well do it again in order to move a few more steps in the right direction.
De La Salle Green Archers – Have they peaked too early?
The De La Salle Green Archers had ended Season 77 on a sour note after they lost, 2-3, against the eventual champions Far Eastern University Tamaraws in the finals. The Green Archers then looked to put that setback behind them once Season 78 commenced. They beat archrivals Ateneo Blue Eagles, 3-1, in their first match of the season, and followed it up with a gritty 1-0 win against the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons.
La Salle’s acid test, though, had been yet to come in the shape of FEU. Nevertheless, the Green Archers prevailed in the revenge match after a Rigoberto Joseph goal game them a priceless 2-1 victory. The Taft-based squad eventually finished the first elimination round undefeated with five wins and two draws.
But once the second round arrived, things went downhill for La Salle. A revitalized FEU defeated them, 0-1, with Jose Montelibano getting himself sent off. If that loss was forgiveable, then their next result against UP was sinful. The Fighting Maroons deservedly defeated the Green Archers, 0-2, with the latter having struggled to gain any foothold in the game. The Holy Week break has come at a great time for La Salle as their slot in the Final Four is far from secure. While two defeats after nine games shouldn’t spell crisis, it must be asked whether La Salle have peaked too soon or not.
FEU Tamaraws – Reminding everyone they’re still the champions
If La Salle could be said to have peaked too soon, then the opposite can be stated for the resurgent FEU Tamaraws. FEU endured uncharacteristic first round draws against UP and NU, and losses to La Salle and UST. The Tamaraws’ best performance of the first round came when they ransacked the Ateneo Blue Eagles, 5-2, at the McKinley Hill Stadium in Taguig.
It had been a rather curious start for the Tamaraws, and their performances hinted at some internal issues behind the scenes. Not even a 4-0 win against Adamson in FEU’s last first round game seemed to lift the mood in the locker room. Perhaps Nano Amita’s absence made things hard, but a strong squad like that shouldn’t have struggled.
Come the second round, however, it seems like the real Tamaraws have woken up from their slumber. FEU’s 1-0 win to start the phase against ten-men La Salle was somewhat underwhelming, as the Tamaraws should have scored more than that solitary goal regardless of numerical advantage. Their next game, though, against league leaders UST provided the rest of the UAAP with something to fear. The Tamaraws dominated the Growling Tigers, 4-0, with the latter unable to provide the same resilience they had shown throughout the season.
While there are many things that can happen between now and the Final Four, it appears that a resurgent FEU have once again become the favorites to win the title.
NU Bulldogs – Showing the heart and hunger for a maiden playoff run
It is easy to forget that NU’s football program is just four years old. The way the school had created a football team out of nowhere, one that is now being spoken of as a championship contender, is an achievement in itself. Growing pains seemed to be a thing of the past for NU after they missed Season 77’s Final Four by just one point, after Kendall Colet scored a late goal for Ateneo against UST in the last elimination round game of that season.
Nonetheless, Season 78 has proven to be a wake up call for the Bulldogs. Even with the great forward play from Paolo Salenga, Nico Macapal and Jay Abalunan, the Bulldogs have displayed a lack of fight in some matches. NU’s 1-3 loss to UST should have been a freak result, but the 1-3 surrender to Ateneo the following week exposed the squad’s blatant weaknesses.
NU may have a tremendous amount of individually skilled players, but a lack of fighting spirit will inevitably hinder them in the long run. Bulldogs captain Salenga called it “professionalism”, while head coach Lem Laranas deemed it “heart”; regardless of the term, they need a dose of something in order to keep fighting until the end of the ninety minutes, even despite being a goal down. They showed signs of this in their last two first-round games, when they drew with UP and La Salle, the second of which they should have won. A little more bravado won’t be bad for them if they want to at least clinch an inaugural Final Four slot.
UE – Aim to finish strong in another flat season
The UE Red Warriors are at the foot of the table at the moment with just a point to show after nine games. A goalscoring drought had hit them hard early in the season, before defensive struggles began plaguing them midway into the season. While it may be difficult for them to pursue a place in the semifinals now, the team headed by Ryan Marinay should get the most out of their remaining games.
After all, it isn’t as if the competition had steamrollered past the Red Warriors throughout the season. Even against this season’s title contenders, they have put together a few decent performances. Earlier in the season, they had held UST to a goalless draw, while also putting up gallant stands against UP and La Salle.
Back then, the problem they had was an inability to create and finish chances. It took five games for UE to open their scoring account this season. Since then, they have scored four times. It would have been a great step forward, as they don’t normally concede too many. In the first five games of the season, UE only conceded 10 goals–a rate better than last year’s 14 at that stage in the previous season.
However, their defense has suddenly weakened. In the same period, the Red Warriors allowed their opponents to score 11 times past them. This issue was reflected in their 2-3 defeat to Ateneo at the start of the second round. They nearly grabbed a rare point when they scored a second goal in a match for the first time this season through Bon Opeña. Yet porous defending deprived the Red Warriors of sharing the spoils, as they allowed Julian Roxas to nod the ball from close range.
Despite all that, there is still time this season for the Red Warriors to show how talented they are. It may be impossible for them to reach the Final Four now, but UE can still take pride in having done their best to make life difficult for the immensely-pressured contenders. They still have four of those teams to come, so it might be best for the Red Warriors to challenge them by putting together their best on both ends. Should they do, it might even serve as a launching pad for a better display next season.
UP – Finishing, finishing and more finishing
After nine games played this Season 78, the UP Fighting Maroons are currently in 6th place with 15 points. Not bad, given that UP have the same number of points as NU and Ateneo. In fact, a place in the Final Four could even be considered as an achievement for the Fighting Maroons, as star striker Jinggoy Valmayor had already run down his UAAP eligibility.
Speaking of Valmayor, the current Loyola Meralco Sparks signee had left a huge hole in the UP attack. Under the tutelage of head coach Anto Gonzales, the Fighting Maroons have been known for their pressing and fantastic passing of the ball. However, one glaring problem of theirs has been their finishing in front of goal, something epitomized in their loss against UST. UP held 80% possession and had numerous chances to score, but they still lost 0-1.
Granted, UP would be higher in the league table if it hadn’t been for their lack of killer instinct. Gonzales has since shuffled his pack, dropping Daniel Gadia to midfield and selectingCarlos Monfort to play as a striker. Their goalscoring immediately improved. From scoring just four goals in the first round, the Fighting Maroons now have five goals in just the first two fixtures of the second round. There are still so many things to play for this season, and if UP can convert their possession into goals consistently, then the rest of the league better watch out.
UST – Responding to a setback
UST may have suffered a painful, 0-4 loss to FEU in their last game, but that shouldn’t take away from the fantastic campaign they’re currently having. The Growling Tigers remained undefeated after the first round, and came back from two goals down against the Fighting Maroons to salvage a 3-3 draw. Key to these results have been the players’ willingness to fight for the ball even if it looks like a lost cause.
After UST’s dismal sixth place finish in Season 77, the España-based squad were motivated to improve upon that finish. Head coach Marjo Allado instilled in them an underdog mentality, and the players have responded positively to his instructions. One significant factor to UST’s revival this season has been their second half improvements. They defeated the likes of NU, Ateneo, and FEU in the first round due to their second half goals.
Whatever happens from now on until the end of Season 78, UST should be remembered for the intense football they’ve played. A Final Four slot should be the minimum target now that they are top of the league. A potential championship isn’t out of the question with how they’ve never backed down from a setback.
This coming Thursday, UAAP football action will resume. First up, the UE Red Warriors and the UP Fighting Maroons will square off in the first game scheduled at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Afterwards, the FEU Tamaraws will face the Adamson Soaring Falcons. Both games will be played at the Moro Lorenzo Football Field in Ateneo de Manila University campus, Quezon City.