#2 De La Salle University Green Archers vs #3 Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles
How La Salle qualified:
A strong first round showing catapulted the De La Salle Green Archers to the top of the UAAP men’s football tournament standings. The Lasallians were the best team after seven games, keeping an impressive record of five wins and two draws. At that point, La Salle looked like they were going to repeat last season’s unbeaten elimination round run. Yet all that seemed long ago when the second round commenced. The Green Archers began the latter half of the preliminaries by absorbing two confidence-denting losses to FEU and UP. A narrow loss to Ateneo a few games after even made things harder at one point for La Salle, but routine wins against UE and Adamson simply eased the pressure on their way to the semifinals.
It can be argued that La Salle’s extraordinary come-from-behind 3-2 victory against the Bulldogs in their third game of the second round spared them from missing the Final Four. The team faced adversity for the first time prior to that match and appeared to have fumbled again when they found themselves down 2-1. Not willing to surrender, the Green Archers netted two goals from Nicko Villacin and Greggy Yang in second half added time to overturn a result in dramatic fashion. It served as a perfect response as La Salle went on to keep themselves focused to barge into the Final Four as the second seed.
How Ateneo qualified
If their semifinal opponents had a great first round, the opposite can be said about the Ateneo Blue Eagles, who played better football in the second round. Placing sixth after the opening seven games of Season 78, the Ateneans rose from the ashes by bagging 16 out of the maximum 21 points in the second round for them to seal a place in the Final Four.
Their 3-3 draw with the already-eliminated NU Bulldogs in the second round ultimately proved to be the difference between outright qualification and a potential early exit as it placed them above the FEU Tamaraws, who were eventually eliminated after losing to UP in their last game. Rookie Jarvey Gayoso’s magnificently hit free kick in stoppage time of their last elimination round game, coupled by the Tamaraws’ defeat four days later, averted the possibility of a playoff as the Ateneans managed to finish with the third best record in the league. They edged UST, who ended the season level with them on points, all thanks to a superior goal difference.
The case for La Salle
The Green Archers tend to control possession and this is a strength they have to capitalize on against Ateneo. If they get to keep the ball more, La Salle should be able to pile immense pressure on their opponents. Forcing Ateneo to defend will be beneficial in more ways than one for Coach Hans-Peter Smit’s men.
First, it will allow La Salle to explore several opportunities against their opponents whose defensive frailty is underlined by an average of 1.5 goals conceded per game. Ateneo’s defense is certainly not the best in the league, something that the Lasallians should exploit in order to assert dominance in the semifinal. Second, pushing back the Ateneans presents La Salle the chance to tire their opponents. Playing behind the ball is exhausting as it burns off energy while being deprived the ability to dictate the game’s tempo. While it may be true that having more possession leaves teams vulnerable to counter attacks, the Green Archers have excellent ball-playing defenders who are capable in coping with danger.
After all, La Salle’s defense is statistically the second best in the league and the team holds the highest net goals rate among the teams still in the title race. Should their backline stay as organized just as it had in last season’s semifinal and in the majority of this season, then it should be La Salle’s to lose.
The case for Ateneo
Bannered by some of the league’s best attacking players, the Ateneo Blue Eagles will look very dangerous should they keep the habit of scoring goals. The Blue Eagles have become a reputable attack-minded team this season, backed by the fact that the Katipunan’s blue-clad team recorded the most number of goals in Season 78 with 32. They were able to do it for the most part by playing direct football.
Interestingly, eight different players delivered at least one assist with Mikko Mabanag etching a season-high of 11. Including the two games he missed due to suspension, the graduating midfielder nearly averages one assist per game. There are also 11 players directly involved in all of the Blue Eagles goals, highlighting the team’s depth and chemistry. Those factors will come in very handy in playing direct football as both of their two goals against La Salle this season came from passing movement swift enough to catch the defense off guard. Do it again and the Blue Eagles will definitely like their chances in avenging last season’s heartbreaking semifinal defeat.
Another aspect of Ateneo’s game that would hand them the advantage is their red-hot form. Out of all the teams in the league, only the UP Fighting Maroons have claimed more points than the Blue Eagles in the last six games played. Five wins, a draw and a loss reflects how confident Ateneo must feel prior to their most important game of the season. When the stakes are much higher such as in knockout games like this, a confident team is a very challenging team to beat.
Why La Salle might lose
Win, lose, or draw, Smit has always lamented how his team started games slowly. The Green Archers may have benefited from their coach’s adjustments in some of the games this season, but it would certainly be more convenient if they can put their feet on the gas as soon as possible. Failing to get going in the early stages may be detrimental as seen in their second round losses to UP and Ateneo. In semifinal ties, the difficulty of coming from behind increases as it becomes a battle not to lose rather than a battle to win. Losing the most recent game against Ateneo might urge the Lasallians to bounce back so eagerly, but it may be a double-edged sword if they don’t get to hit the ground running early once again.
Why Ateneo might lose
A leaky defense is something the Blue Eagles should address as they prepare for the Green Archers. Ateneo’s defense comes as a mixed bag this season, recording impressive clean sheets against formidable attacking teams like FEU and La Salle on some days and giving away easy goals such as they have had against NU, UE, and UST in other occasions. During the preliminaries, Ateneo Coach JP Merida usually expressed concern about his team’s defensive performance as he constantly emphasized the necessity of staying organized at the back. He is convinced that the team has more than enough talent to score goals, but it might be of no use if their defense, especially when the stakes are higher, cannot match the effectiveness of their attack.
Key Green Archers
Skipper Gelo Diamante, veteran cog Greggy Yang and last year’s Best Goalkeeper Paeng de Guzman are among the people touted to make the difference for La Salle. The fourth year player whose goal toppled Ateneo last year has continued to provide key goals for DLSU this season. It hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies for Diamante though as his form in front of goal has been inconsistent throughout. Being the main man up top, Gelo often gets a chance or two in every game. If he makes at least one count, then it’s difficult to say that La Salle won’t make it to the final. That’s because the Green Archers had never lost in a game they’ve scored in Season 78. DLSU only failed to net three times out of 14 games they played, one of which was against Ateneo. As the pilot of their offense, Diamante needs to make sure he’s got his touches sorted out in the game.
Missing two experienced players in midfield due to graduation, the Green Archers managed to stay dangerous this season. A huge reason behind sustaining La Salle’s attacking rhythm is the emergence of Yang. The defender turned holding midfielder has been supplying reliable services on both ends of the pitch. Having an effective defensive midfielder provides help to the back line while also having a person that will facilitate attacks from deep. Yang’s displays this season suggest that he has the urgency to win the ball back from opponents in critical areas alongside the vision to make a decisive pass to ignite the offense. Add his impeccable marksmanship in taking set pieces, an art he occasionally displayed in his early playing days.
Going further down the pitch stands the only man in the team authorized to use his hands on the field in the mold of de Guzman. The Ateneo team looks like a much-improved version of the one that narrowly fell to DLSU in Season 77. Hence, the La Salle number one would have to take charge in making sure the defense won’t let up. His shot-stopping skills is arguably second to none in the league, but it is his ability to command the back four that will be put him to the test. With Ateneo gaining confidence in front of goal on the back of a marvellous second round performance, De Guzman may just have let his mouth, much like his hands, to do the work.
Key Blue Eagles
The highly-regarded Gayoso, together with fellow rookie Masyu Yoshioka and sophomore center back Jeremiah Rocha, will have to be kept an eye on by the Archers and the spectators. A blue chip rookie, Gayoso is proving himself worthy of the hype built up before he even graduated high school on the other side of Ateneo’s walls. To say that the match will revolve around how he will play sounds like a hyperbole, but it may just be the case in the blue against green skirmish. In all matches wherein Gayoso scored, the Blue Eagles only lost just once–against FEU plenty of match days ago.
What makes Gayoso deadly is his ability to make things happen once he gets in the area. Once in the box, the Ateneo rookie always tries to bamboozle defenders by scoring from tight angles or finding open teammates who could deal damage against unsuspecting defenses.
One of those teammates able to work well without the ball is Masyu Yoshioka. The Japanese midfielder had played terrific football in the second round that it can be argued that his rise to prominence is one of the reasons why Ateneo moved up from sixth to third. The newcomer looked like he had no idea what he was doing in the first round so it came as a pleasant surprise that he stepped up his game in Ateneo’s last seven games. The first year player exhibits a lovely mixture of pace, precision and power whenever he is given the chance to move forward with the ball. Together with Gayoso, their exploits in the attacking third had made Ateneo a team to fear.
It’s not only in attack where the Blue Eagles have an instrumental figure as Rocha offers them security at the back. The second year defender is a huge help to his relatively inexperienced colleagues on the back line by keeping everyone in sync. At the same time, Rocha is a stubborn center back willing to risk everything to prevent opponents from imposing their will against his team particularly inside the 18-yard box. A tall lanky defender towering above almost everyone whenever he’s on the pitch, his underrated skill in marking threats will be put to the test once more against La Salle’s crafty strike force.
Both teams began Season 78 by facing each other. La Salle emerged on top in their season debut, banking on late goals by Jiggs Cruz and Gelo Diamante to finish off the unlucky Blue Eagles. Greggy Yang fired them ahead early in the game only for Ateneo’s Mike Castillo to cancel the senior’s set piece effort instantly. The Blue Eagles even had the opportunity of taking all the points but a saved Emilio Acosta penalty shifted the momentum to La Salle, prompting two quick-fire goals to snatch the result altogether.
In the teams’ second meeting, the Ateneans maximized their home advantage by blanking their foes and concurrently nicking one goal coming from Gayoso. There could have been more goals but it seemed that Ateneo took out a page off their neighbors’ playbook by using compact defense and subpar finishing to exact revenge and gain an important win against the Lasallians.
A 2-1 extra time victory for the Green Archers may well be in the cards. Matches between the two rivals always contained the intensity and the semifinal may only increase such. One noticeable change from both teams is how they are more clinical in finishing chances than they were last season. As both teams look likely to score in the game, performance on the defensive end may spell the difference between entering the finals and bowing out of the race. With what both teams have to offer, the balance is slightly tipped in favor of the more organized and slightly more experienced DLSU team after 120 minutes of play.