AFC Cup: Bacolod rekindles its love affair with Ceres Negros


Ceres Negros vs Boeung Ket
AFC Cup Group Stage
7:30 pm, Tuesday, February 13
Panaad Stadium, Bacolod
LIVE on Fox Sports 2

MANILA, Philippines – Ceres Negros is back on home soil after a road trip that captured the imagination of the Philippine football community. The Negrenses embarked on an arduous gauntlet towards qualification in the top-tier AFC Champions League when they edged Myanmar outfit Shan United last January 16 in Yangon in a penalty shootout.

Then they traveled to Brisbane, Australia the very next Tuesday and stunned the Asian football firmament with a 3-2 win thanks to 3 goals from Spanish forward Bienve Marañon and Filipino-Iranian Omid Nazari.

That set up a winner-take-all clash against Tianjin Quanjian on January 30 in frigid Tianjin, China for the spot in the group stage of the AFC Champions League. Sadly the Chinese team prevailed 2-0, with their classy French striker Anthony Modeste finding the back of the net twice. But many were impressed with the fighting performance that left them on the brink of the highest tier of Asian club football.

Thankfully the AFC reserved a place for the Pinoy club back in the AFC Cup, where Ceres made the Philippines proud by winning the ASEAN Zone last year. Their opponents are Cambodia champs Boueng Ket and the place is the friendly confines of the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod. Ceres never lost on Panaad soil in the AFC Cup last year and their only defeat there in the PFL was a 2-1 loss at the hands of Meralco.

When the team planed in Friday morning they felt the love from a throng of Ceres fans at the Silay Airport. A caravan then escorted them back to the city.

The club is, as usual, spreading the word about the game with plenty of on-ground marketing efforts, as this picture shows. This billboard list all 3 upcoming home games in the AFC Cup. After the Busmen face the Cambodians they entertain Shan United on March 6 then Home United of Singapore on April 25.

A source close to the team says that AFC Cup games tend to draw more fans and create more excitement than PFL matches. Perhaps it's because the stakes are higher and the competition arguably stronger.

Ceres should be sharp and confident after doing so well against these tough teams. But coach Risto Vidakovic refuses to single out any one player as responsible for their fine form.

“Everyone in the team has made a big step, not only some players. But a lot of players have improved a lot from last season. Many players grew with the team together, not two or three. It's very difficult for me to talk about names,” says the Serb.

Vidakovic says the roster is free from injuries and suspensions. Martin Steuble is still finding his way out of sick bay while Patrick Reichelt did make a late entrance in China. New signing Amani Aguinaldo still needs to rehab further before he can get on the pitch.

One new player, striker Takumi Uesato, did come on against Tianjin but was unable to get on the scoresheet.

Apart from Uesato and Aguinaldo, Ceres also corraled JPV Marikina defender Sean Kane in the offseason as well as veteran Spanish keeper Toni Doblas.

“The new players, unfortunately, don't have many minutes. I just put players from last year because tactically the new players are not prepared,” explained the coach.

“I know what they can give, I think they will give us a lot. Thats why they are here,” added Vidakovic.

The coach will need the team to perform against Boueng Ket. The Rubbermen (yes, that is their nickname since a rubber plantation company sponsors them,) may have lost twice to Global last year in the AFC Group stage but they have a real scoring threat in Maycon Calijuri. The journeyman Brazilian striker has experience in Belarus, Poland, Thailand and Indonesia

(Global begins their campaign in the AFC Cup against Thanh Hoa of Vietnam on Saturday night.)

Calijuri will partner with Khoun Laboravy, the veteran Cambodian national team forward who scored the winner in the two-legged 4-3 aggregate qualifying win against Lao Toyota.

“We have to respect them,” says the coach.

Vidakovic does not downplay the importance of the match, since it will set the tone not just for the rest of the AFC campaign, which is 6 group games then a knockout stage, but for the PFL, which is set to begin March 3.

“For us it's a very important game. It's always important to win the first game at home, so there is much less pressure when you go outside (on the road) to play.”

With last year's strong finish, expectations are also ratcheted up. Vidakovic knows that they will need to take things one game at a time, but that in the long run, their goals have shifted.

“Our first goal is to win the first game. Then qualify for the next round, of course,” says the coach. He also seems to set his sights higher.

“But after the last season, if we do (achieve) less, it's not enough.”

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.