AFC Cup: Crunch time for Ceres, Kaya in final group stage matches


AFC Cup 2016

Tuesday, May 10


Ceres La Salle vs Lt. Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club Limited (BAN)

Pana-ad Park and Stadium, Bacolod City

6:45 pm LIVE on ABS-CBN Sports+Action


New Radiant (MDV) vs Kaya FC

National Stadium, Malé, Maldives

7:45 pm LIVE on Fox Sports 2


A day after politics divide a nation, our football clubs can unite them once again. 

Ceres La Salle and Kaya FC are both playing the last matches of their 2016 AFC Cup campaigns. Ceres is already assured of progression to the round of 16 knockout stage of this Asian club competition later in the month. Kaya may need a result in hostile territory to manage the same feat.

First, unbeaten Ceres, who play at home, are in the next phase, win, lose or draw. Their 9 points from 5 games places them at the summit of Group E, a point above Malaysian outfit Selangor FA and two above Singaporean side Tampines Rovers. 

A win against the gloriously named Lieutenant Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club Limited of Bangladesh, (eliminated with just 3 points), means the busmen top the group and earn the right to host the round-of-16 knockout match against the runner-up of Group G, which is either Maziya Sports and Recreation of the Maldives, South China of Hong Kong, or Myanmar squad Yangon United. That match will take place on May 24. 

Thankfully, Ceres can still finish number one in the group with either a draw or a loss as long as Selangor and Tampines draw in their cross-causeway encounter. But if Selangor wins and goes to 11 points, a Ceres win will be needed to pip them to the post. A close Tampines win brings the Singaporeans to 10 points and a draw could be good enough for the Negrense side. 

It's important for Ceres to win the group because that allows them a home field advantage in the knockout game. If they finish as Group E bridesmaid they will definitely have to travel to the home patch of Mohun Bagan. The Indian team has dominated Group G and are already assured of the top spot and a home game. 

The Indira Gandhi stadium in Guwahati, Assam state will likely not be a hospitable spot for the Filipino team. Assam is in the northeast corner of India, in a narrow strip of Indian territory bordered by Bhutan in the north and Bangladesh in the south. The last time a Filipino team traveled to this part of the world was late in 2013, when the Azkals were held to a 1-1 draw by the Indian national team in Siliguri, to the west of Guwahati.

Mohun Bagan are traditionally associated with the city of Kolkata, (Calcutta), where they make up half of the Kolkata Derby with rivals East Bengal. However all of their 2016 AFC Cup matches have curiously been played in Guwahati. 

Ceres will have some confidence going up against Sheikh Jamal, who they defeated 2-0 in Dhaka earlier in the year. But Sheikh Jamal raised plenty of eyebrows when they stunned Tampines Rovers 3-2 two weeks ago in Dhaka thanks in part to two goals from Gambian forward Landing Darboe.

Ceres coach Frank Muescan will no doubt be taking the visitors seriously, especially since they are still suffering from injuries to key players. Midfielders Stephan Schrock and Martin Steuble are in a race to fitness for the match. Schrock is still nursing a pesky quadriceps injury while Steuble is hampered by a hyperextended knee. They are listed as day-to-day. Azkal Kevin Ingreso continues his long convalescence from injury and is still not ready to suit up. 

The Bacolod-based team will need to set aside any lingering doubts from their listless 3-2 loss to Loyola in the UFL league opener last weekend. 

The two Group E matches kick off at the same time so no doubt observers will be glued to their social media accounts, hoping for news of a draw from the National Stadium in Singapore. 

For Kaya, the assignment is a bit trickier. On 9 points from 3 wins and two losses, Kaya are a point behind Group F pace-setters Kitchee of Hong Kong and two above Singapore's Balestier Khalsa. New Radiant, on two points, are out of the running. 

Even if Kaya draw New Radiant they are not secured a top-two placing and a round-of-16 berth. Balestier Khalsa could defeat Kitchee in Hong Kong and throw up a messy 3-way logjam at 10 points. Thankfully Kaya's goal difference of plus 3 is better than Balestier's goal difference, which is zero. 

Kaya are assured of passage if they pick up a road win against New Radiant. That catapults them to 12 points and they could even get the top spot if Kitchee loses or draws to Balestier.

Coach Joel Villarino's could be in dire straits if they lose in Maldives. That will leave them stuck at 9 points. A Balestier upset in Hong Kong knocks out the Filipino side, while a draw or Balestier loss sees Kaya through to the next phase. So it still looks promising for the Filipinos, especially since Kitchee plays Balestier at home. 

Kaya will not want to rue their 1-0 loss at home to Kitchee two weeks ago when the dust has settled.

Fortunately the last time these teams met in March, OJ Porteria got the home fans in Rizal Memorial off their seats in the 94th minute with a stunning volley to win the game 1-0. But sadly the mercurial Azkal is suspended for this match on accumulated yellows. Kaya will also be missing another player, Ghanaian midfielder Alfred Osei. He is recovering from meniscus surgery and is out for an extended period.

It could be up to Anton Ugarte, Jovin Bedic, and Miguel Tanton to create in the center of the park. 

If Kaya win the group they host Indian club JSW Bengaluru in Rizal Memorial on May 25. If Kaya end up in second it's a tough contest in the Stadium Tan Sri Dato' Haji Yunos in Johor Bahru, Malaysia against Johor Darul Ta'zim, the wealthy Malaysian club that has devastated Group H with 5 wins from 5 matches.

Kaya can draw strength from the fact that a Filipino side has beaten a Maldivian one on this ground. The Azkals beat Maldives in front of a full stadium 3-2 in extra time in the semis of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. Chris Greatwich, now Kaya's assistant coach for this campaign, scored the winner in the 104th minute. 

Monday is a big day for Philippine politics. Tuesday, an even bigger one for Philippine football. If all goes right, two Pinoy sides will continue on their journey towards international glory. – 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.