MANILA, Philippines – Ceres Negros FC's debut in the AFC Champions League (ACL) qualifiers is now being written in the history books of Philippine football.
The Philippines Football League (PFL) champions upset Brisbane Roar, 3-2, which catapulted them to the 2018 ACL preliminary round 3, being the first Filipino club to have gone this far in the elite regional tournament. (READ: Marañon, Nazari propel Ceres to stunner over Brisbane Roar)
As Australia is ranked 36th in the world by FIFA, the match made headlines all over the globe, embarrassing the Roar to have lost to a club from the Philippines – a country that is currently ranked 123rd in the FIFA world rankings. (READ: For bowing to Ceres Negros, Aussies call Brisbane Roar 'laughing stock of Asia')
Despite starting training only on January 10, Ceres relied on their win against Myanmar club Shan United to boost their confidence heading into the play-off against Brisbane Roar. During the post-game press conference, Ceres head coach Risto Vidakovic notes that the difference may be in the fact that it was more difficult to motivate the Roar, as they faced a Filipino club.
"It’s not easy to motivate a player when they play against smaller clubs. It’s a normal thing I think. The players, even if they know the importance of the game, they want to qualify for the champions league but they know that they are playing against a Filipino club they cannot be 100% motivated like us. So I think that makes the difference," said Vidakovic.
Now, Ceres' chances of qualifying for the ACL group stage will be decided by their match against Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian on Tuesday, January 30. The winner will advance to group E of the ACL.
No other word can describe Ceres' ACL journey but "exhausting".
Two days before the decider, Ceres was in crisis as the club was unable to obtain visas during the weekend, putting the team in jeopardy of missing the actual game.
Ceres appealed to various organizations and the Philippine government for help and was able to get endorsement from the Chinese Football Association (CFA). The Bacolod-based club finally secured their visas at noon time Monday, January 29, and departed at 5:45 pm of the same day.
Ceres was coming off from two straight weeks of traveling back and forth from the Philippines for their first two ACL preliminary round matches. The team arrived in Manila from Australia on Friday, January 26 after a 10-hour flight.
To make things more difficult, the flight that they took on Monday will make a two-hour stopover in Hong Kong before taking a connecting flight to Beijing. Ceres will arrive in China at approximately 2:00 am and the drive to Tianjin would take one and a half hours. The Bacolod club would only have around 11 hours to spare before their kickoff at 3:30 pm, Tuesday.
Aside from the club's back-to-back gruelling travels, Ceres-Negros would also have to adjust from Philippines' 30°C-weather to a chilly 3°C-China weather during the game.
According to the report by Fox Sports Asia, head coach Vidakovic requested the AFC to postpone the game in order for Ceres to compete against Tianjin on even conditions. Ceres, being the lower-ranked team, had to endure extensive traveling and is now expected to adjust to Tianjin's arctic weather and skill level of the Chinese club during the game.
However, AFC noted that participating clubs are solely responsible for preparing and securing necessary documents to enter the territory of the host association. This statement decreases the chances of the game's potential delay.
A tough test
Just like Ceres, the Chinese club will also be making its first appearance in the ACL qualifiers.
In 2016, Tianjin Quanjian clinched first place in the China League One and was promoted to the Chinese Super League (CSL) in 2017, where they immediately landed 3rd place overall in their first year.
The Chinese team is currently looking very dangerous as they possess Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato. In the 2017 edition of the CSL, Pato led the team by scoring 15 goals in 24 apperances and proved to be lethal from all areas along the front line. Pato participated in the 2006 FIFA club World Cup representing Brazilian club Internacional at the age of 16.
Tianjin was also able to secure the services of Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel. Witsel has over 85 caps with the Belgium national team, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2016.
However, the Chinese club is still in their preseason and is currently transitioning to their new Portuguese head coach Paulo Suosa.
Suosa played as a defensive midfielder during his playing career for various European clubs such as Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. The Portuguese then shifted to his managerial career in 2005, but his resume was tainted with two pink slips by English clubs Queens Park Rangers and Leicester City, as well as a terminated contract with Hungarian club Videoton.
Suosa only earned a total of 5 titles as a coach with Videoton, Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv and Swiss club Basel.
It will be expected of Ceres to repeat their defensive strategies in Brisbane against the deadly lineup of Tianjin that is waiting for them in China.
Continuing the legacy
With the Philippines' first ACL qualification on the line, Ceres-Negros will be looking to continue the legacy they have been gracing Philippine football with since 2017.
For a club that was founded only in 2012, Ceres quickly climbed the ranks of Philippine club football in the last 6 years and made their mark in Southeast Asian Football when they were crowned ASEAN Champions in the 2017 AFC Cup.
Ceres managed to juggle their 2017 AFC Cup campaign with the hectic PFL schedule, as they emerged as the inaugural champions of the PFL on December 16, 2017 in their 4-1 win vs Global Cebu FC.
Ceres-Negros will now step onto the next rung of the ladder that will make or break their 2018 ACL campaign.
"We have to enjoy it, we have to compete with them, and we don’t have pressure. That’s the good thing for us, so whatever we do, if we get a good result, it’s a blessing," said Vidakovic. – Rappler.com
More commonly known as “Bee”, Beatrice is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Phillippine sports governance, national teams, football and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.