by Dan Manglinong and Brian Tamayao
In a classic battle between challengers and champions, it will all boil down to who wants it most. As we all know, the UAAP men’s football title will belong to either DLSU or FEU tomorrow night. Both teams have won their last five games to deservedly earn the right to dispute for the coveted title.
FEU’s number one goal is to retain the championship title they won last year. Before getting there, they had to face a foe whose hunger is similar to theirs–La Salle. The Tamaraws dominated the match but the Archers found a way to equalize eventually. At the end of the day, destiny favored FEU with now-Assistant Coach Dexter Chio launching them into the finals where they defeated UP twice, to capture the highly sought-after crown they last won in Season 72. On paper, the defending champions appear to be the best team in the league as they cover the flaws by playing with their strengths. FEU’s offense is fiery, and a testament to that is their ability to score in every game. However, what is often overlooked is the team’s defense. It has not been the perfect year for FEU at the back, but recent games suggest that they got their mojo back in defending.
As for the challengers, DLSU worked hard to earn an ultimate chance of ending a 17-year famine on the pitch. Tired of missing out on championship duels since Season 68, La Salle has transformed into a different team this time around. Failing to reach the finals in nine years, DLSU made a return to the big stage by taking the league by storm. Their unbeaten run has now spanned to 15 games and has been a factor in entering the semis with the league’s best points record. They take pride of their defense, being the only ones in the league to prevent opponents from scoring 10 goals or more. The impressive defensive record sends out the message that scoring against them will be a tall order. La Salle is also the kind of team that scores just enough to claim desirable outcomes. Having said that, there is no other game where scoring like that is more important than in the last game of the season.
Games between the league’s most solid defensive team and the fiercest offensive team have been fairly contested so far with two 1-1 draws. Intriguingly, both teams also scored once from the penalty spot, but those count nothing more than what will ensue in the final match. Everyone wants to play this game, but only them will get to do so. Everything else will be momentarily forgotten, as the main prize awaits at the end of the tunnel. In anticipation of this action-packed event, we invite you to take some time to digest what we think of tomorrow’s huge match.
R1: DLSU 1-1 FEU December 7, 2014
Moro Lorenzo Football Field
(Alquiros 31′ pk; Amita 26′)
R2: FEU 1-1 DLSU January 25, 2015
FEU-Diliman Football Field
(Melliza 84′ pk; Uy 89′)
Just looking at the numbers will simply suggest that La Salle has the league’s best defense. Opponents only scored nine times in 15 games and the last time they conceded came 485 game minutes ago. Paeng De Guzman has been one of the top keepers in the UAAP this season. The young goalkeeper positions himself well to stop shots from going into his net. He utilizes his height and wingspan to make it easier for him to guard the goal posts, but his judgment has been superb all season. He was tested well in DLSU’s two games versus FEU this season, mostly in the second round encounter where FEU’s lone goal came from the penalty spot. With the Tamaraws looking better than ever, De Guzman is likely to work harder than last week’s semifinal match against Ateneo. Amply supporting the DLSU goalkeeper, are talented defenders whose primary aim is to him a mere spectator in every match. Wingbacks Matthew Nierras and Gerald Layumas are armed with the pace and tenacity to deter opposing wingers. They are tough players to get past against, often forcing opponents to send crosses instead of penetrating along the flanks. La Salle’s center backs are also adept in marking some of the league’s best forwards. Nicholas Villacin, Noel Brago, and Gregory Yang have been the three players usually deployed in central defense. Each of them offers stability at the back as they have been exemplary in shadowing players and cutting passing lanes so far.
As statistics would show, La Salle vastly improved defensively in the second round. Five clean sheets in their last seven matches of the elimination versus only one in the opening seven, manifest how well the team adjusted in keeping opponents from scoring. Four of the six times DLSU blanked opponents even came against the league’s top five teams, a barometer of playoff quality opposition. However, FEU is a different animal with 21 of their 53 goals scored during their last five matches. While keeping foes from scoring at the aforementioned time span, La Salle’s defense may have to step up a notch further to hamper the rabid Tamaraw frontline.
Of this season’s top four, FEU ranks third in conceding goals. They have played three goalies this season: RJ Joyel, Patrick Rallos, and Michael Menzi. When not manning the goal, the three play as defenders and do their part in shielding the box, usually in a central position. Menzi, primarily a goalkeeper last season, was handed the keeper’s gloves for the first time in their semifinal match with UP last week. Menzi was superb in his first appearance as a goalie this season, denying an aggressive UP team a single goal, paving the way for a 1-0 extra time victory. It may be Menzi who will stand in between the posts but to have either Joyel or Rallos there, will not come as a surprise, as they have also had spectacular moments for FEU as goalkeepers. In addition they have the towering Joshua Mulero, who uses his size and strength to provide excellent central area coverage for FEU. Mulero is also capable of taking long strides up the field to directly assist in redistributing the ball. Furthermore, the Tams have their rookie Audie Menzi, an aggressive fullback capable of wing play and can send volleys back to the top of the field. What they lack in locking down on the box, they make up for it by feeding the counterattack. Wards like Noli Chavez and Reymart Cubon have also made their presence felt by disrupting opponents’ advances.
For most of the season, the FEU defense is spotty and susceptible to sneaky late goals from opponents. It has been an area where the Tamaraws have been inconsistent. They may have kept six clean sheets but have also averaged 1.13 goals given away per game. Add to that, they norm 1.88 goals conceded in games where they were scored against and a whopping three goals conceded in games they lost. Despite all that, FEU kept opponents scoreless for the last 463 minutes of football, a record that highlights how their defense has steadily improved.
Lasallian midfielders are among the best in distributing the ball and moving with possession. This season, DLSU has been undefeated and winning the midfield battle is always key to getting favorable results. An experienced cast of players spearheaded by Nathan Alquiros and Gio Diamante have grown hungrier, and their desire to win has been mirrored in their games this season. La Salle’s ball retention in games has become a sight to behold except for foes who often have to work doubly hard to regain possession. Notably, everyone Coach Hans Smit deploys in the middle of the park gets to touch the ball in offensive sequences. In spreading the ball, La Salle keeps opponents guessing as to where the ball will be played. Defensively, the La Salle midfielders have been positioning themselves well to improve chances of regaining the ball in no time. What is also a distinct characteristic of DLSU’s midfield is the ability of everyone to play everywhere in the area. The versatility of La Salle’s midfielders tend to disintegrate enemies’ back lines while creating spaces to operate.
No great offensive team could ever find success with a mediocre midfield. The FEU midfielder may be one of the most stellar roles in the league today. Among the Tamaraws’ midfielders are master playmakers Nicolas Ferrer Jr., Val Jurao and last year’s MVP Paolo Bugas, whose ability to create opportunities for their teammates and redirect the flow of the ball toward the enemy goal. When Bugas was sidelined by an injury late in the first round, the Tamaraws readjusted by coursing their offense through the wing, calling on defenders to help the redistribution on the midfield, and depending on their forwards to bring up the ball, facilitating what may as well be one of the league’s most feared counterattacking schemes. And then, there’s Arnel ‘Nano’ Amita, the league’s top scoring midfielder with 13 goals credited to his name thus far and a threat at all times. The ever-reliable, ever fearsome FEU midfield is an important cog in the Tamaraws’ burgeoning football dynasty.
The Archers have some of the most gifted midfielders in the league: Nathan Alquiros, Jose Montelibano, Iñigo Gonzales, and Jojo Borromeo. Alquiros and Montelibano are the only formally-assigned wingers in this bunch, but the rest are as capable of powering and maneuvering their way from the wings and into the box. When Gelo Diamante, the team’s most experienced pure striker, injured his clavicle and was declared unfit to play for what was supposed to be the remainder of the season, the wingers took charge in keeping the Archers’ offense alive. Every cross, every volley, every shot from an Archer down the wing is something FEU should watched out for.
And then there are the Archers’ clutch performers: Yoshiharu Koizumi, Chuck Uy, and Christian Zubiri. Koizumi and Uy are primarily used as substitutes, but have made the best out of the minutes they’ve gotten. Uy, whose ability to score in crunch time has worked wonders for the Archers time and time again, is tied with batchmate Gelo Diamante in scoring goals for La Salle, with five big goals to his name so far in the season. Rookie Zubiri, though lacking the finishing and athleticism expected in veteran strikes, makes up for his goal-scoring deficiencies with decent composure inside the box and the presence of mind to communicate with the wingers and midfielders. It’s definitely not bad for a frontline that does not have much experience in the UAAP. Having said that, it is of paramount importance to stay focused and composed in what is the most important game of the season, particularly in striking the ball into the net.
Goals have been less than how the DLSU players would have liked and the main problem with regard to that is the team’s sub-par finishing touches. Despite scoring 25 goals, third best in the league, the Lasallians have missed far more than what they scored and most of their shots on target have been relatively easy to gather. Goalscoring has dwindled in games where Gelo Diamante did not play. The Archers scored two goals per game whenever he’s in action, 0.82 better than when he missed time due to injury. Now that third year striker has recovered, La Salle’s chances of scoring simply increased. It does not only place an experienced forward as it also adds another scoring threat on the pitch.
The Tamaraws are this league’s top offensive team, having ended the elimination round with a staggering +35 goal difference. Three of the league’s top scorers are Tamaraws: Eric Ben Giganto tallied a league-best 16, Arnel Amita also added 13, and Jhan-Jhan Melliza scored 11. FEU can build up attacks from almost anywhere on the field, with volleys and long balls coming from the back, playmakers like Nicolas Ferrer Jr. and Paolo Bugas rallying the midfield, and Val Jurao sending powerful crosses to the box from the wing. Inside the box, Giganto and Melliza are threats at all times while the determined Amita gets himself into position to score every set piece and does not shy away from attacking the box every now and then. Up front, the Tamaraws are a scary, scary team indeed.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Tamaraws rack up an average of 3.53 goals per game but that figure seems to flatter FEU. 34 of the 53 were smashed past the league’s inferior squads and the goalscoring rate declines when facing tougher opponents. Against the top five, the champions slotted in 2.11 goals per match and only just one goal when playing a game versus DLSU. While a goal may be enough to win the game, scoring more exponentially inflates the probability of winning.
In all sports, nothing brings excitement more than playing in the final. It is always the aim of any player in the world. Tomorrow we will find out whose green is meaner, whose players are hungrier, and whose team plays better. There is surely no room for mediocrity. It’s definitely win or go home for claiming the championship is not something that happens every year. On one hand, La Salle wants a taste of winning a football championship in the UAAP after a long time since winning one. On the other, FEU seeks to start a football dynasty in the men’s division and defending the title is the first step towards accomplishing such. Anything can happen in football and like what was said earlier, it will boil down to who wants it most.