AFC Cup knockout stage: Kaya, Ceres aim for quarterfinals

READY TO STRIKE. Orman Okunaiya of Ceres-La Salle goes for an attack. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

READY TO STRIKE. Orman Okunaiya of Ceres-La Salle goes for an attack.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

AFC Cup Round-of-16 knockout matches

Ceres-La Salle vs South China

6:45 pm, Tuesday, May 24

Panaad Stadium, Bacolod

LIVE on ABS-CBN Sports+Action

Johor Darul Ta'zim vs Kaya FC

7 pm, Wednesday, May 25

Larkin Stadium, Johor, Malaysia

Airing at 8 pm, Thursday, May 26 on ABS-CBN Sports+Action

BACOLOD, Philippines – Kaya and Ceres have both stunned the Asian football firmament by qualifying out of the group stage in the 2016 AFC Cup. But can they maintain their good form and hurdle their next assignments to reach the home-and-away quarterfinals in September? 

Both matches will be played to a win, with extra time and/or penalties if the teams cannot be separated after an hour and a half of regulation play. 

Arguably Ceres has the easier path. The Bacolod-based side topped their group, earning them a right to play at home at this stage on Tuesday, May 24. The visitors will be Hong Kong outfit South China. 

The busmen will need all the support from the home side since South China, known as the "Shaolin Temple" of Hong Kong football, are a veteran crew who have enjoyed previous success against a Filipino side in this Asian club competition. Last year, they swept their season series against Global, including a 6-1 mauling at the Rizal Memorial.

South China have a superb attacking line comprised of Mahama Awal of Cameroon and Chan Siu Ki, a rangy, experienced Hong Kong national team campaigner. Bojan Malisic of Croatia is a force in the middle of the park. 

Ceres have been banged up of late. Adrian Gallardo, this year's second leading goalscorer in the competition with 8 strikes, did not dress in Ceres' last UFL league game, a leisurely 10-1 stroll in the park versus Agila last Wednesday, May 18. The Spaniard is nursing an injured knee but is set to play on Tuesday, according to team management. Jeffrey Christiaens is also likely to play even though he too has been battling injury. Martin Steuble is also hampered by a problem with his calf but he's also likely good to go.

Stephan Schrock is another key player who has been sidelined this year with a sore quadricep. Against Agila he was a late second-half substitute. One imagines that in a match of this magnitude, coach Frank Muescan will utilize him, at the very least, as a second-half impact sub. 

In Ceres' final group stage game versus Sheikh Jamal of Bangladesh a fortnight ago, Jalsor Soriano started at left back as the team's only homegrown outfield starter. He shone with a pair of probing long passes that caused problems for the Bangladeshi side's defensive line. A match with this much at stake will be a real stress test for the native of Talisay, Negros Occidental, whose brother Janrick may also play in the AFC Cup for Kaya on Wednesday, May 25.

It's not clear if veteran centerback Juani Guirado will win his race to fitness. The former Azkal was in street clothes last Wednesday. Jason Sabio will have a decent chance of getting a start. 

Meanwhile, Kaya will try to do what no other team has done in the AFC Cup this year: beat defending champs Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT). 

JDT, who outplayed Istiklol in last year's final, have brutalized their group, taking the full 18 points with 6 wins from 6 matches. Malaysian national team veteran Safiq Rahim is having a vintage campaign with 7 goals, 3rd in the competition. Two other experienced Malaysian national team stalwarts, Safee Sali and the ageless Amri Yahyah, can also create.

Ominously, JDT captured the Malaysian FA Cup last weekend with a come-from-behind 2-1 win over PKNS. This is a team with all sorts of momentum on their side.

Kaya's defense, which has only conceded two goals in the group stage, must have another solid outing. Aly Borromeo can make a great case for a possible Suzuki Cup slot if he and his wing man Masanari Omura can conjure up another clean sheet. 

Coach Joel Villarino has a headache with the suspension of English striker Louis Clark due to accumulated cards. The onus to beat goalie Farizal Marlias will be on OJ Porteria, Kenshiro Daniels, Jovin Bedic, Miguel Tanton, and Antonio Ugarte. Charlie Beaton could be a surprising source of offensive production. 

ACTION. Charlie Beaton of Kaya goes for the score. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

ACTION. Charlie Beaton of Kaya goes for the score.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

Kaya welcomed back Ghanaian midfielder Alfred Osei from injury to his meniscus. Osei will have a small hassle to deal with: while the rest of the team will fly to Singapore and then make the short hop across the causeway to Johor Bahru, Osei will fly to Kuala Lumpur and endure  the longer land voyage to Johor on the tip of the Western Malaysian peninsula. Manager Paul Tolentino, who will accompany Osei, said the Ghanaian is unable to enter Malaysia through Singapore either because of his visa or passport. 

As of the moment, ABS-CBN Sports+Action is airing the match on a next-day delay, while Fox Sports, according to the TV guide on its website, is not planning on a live telecast, probably due to French Open tennis coverage. Let's hope for a change in that situation with one of the networks, or at least a reliable streaming link. 

On Wednesday after drubbing Forza, Kaya were given a special recovery meal treat: a stack of pizzas from one of their sponsors. The carb- rich food might not be the choice of most modern sports nutritionists for a bite after a match, but Tolentino said it's the preferred grub of Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo after a heated football contest. 

Will Kaya's postmatch pepperoni be a celebratory feast or comfort food for a bitter defeat? Will Ceres rise to the occasion or stumble at this hurdle? By Wednesday night we will know the answer to both of these burning questions. – Rappler.com

Follow Bob Guerrero on Twitter at @PassionateFanPH.