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League Finals berth, AFC Cup slot at stake as Sparks, Global clash

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Connor Tacagni and Wesley Dos Santos
Sparks’ Connor Tacagni duels for possession with Cebu’s Wesley Dos Santos

IT’S FC Meralco Manila versus Global Cebu on a mouthwatering Saturday night battle for survival.

The match on Dec. 9, 7:00 p.m. in Rizal Memorial is the second leg of a two-legged, aggregate goals semifinal encounter to decide who makes the Philippines Football League final on Dec. 16. Global has the slimmest of leads thanks to a first-leg 2-1 conquest last Dec. 2.

However, Manila also has an advantage. Despite the fact that stadium unavailability forced both games to be played in Manila, the Cebuanos were still technically the “away” team, and Tahj Minniecon’s goal for Meralco last Saturday counts as an away goal. Thus a 1-0 result this coming Saturday means a 2-2 aggregate score and the Sparks gaining a berth in the Final on away goals.

A 2-1 win by Meralco on Saturday means the match will go into extra time and if necessary, penalties. Apart from that score, every other result on Saturday means the series will be concluded after 90 minutes.

In the other semifinal this Saturday, Ceres Negros, who edged Kaya Makati 1-0 in their first leg last Saturday, are the hosts for leg 2, also at 7:00 p.m.

The Sparks are determined to make amends for the late meltdown last Saturday that saw late strikes by Wes Dos Santos and Hikaru Minegishi give Cebu the win.

“We finished on top of the league for a reason,” says defender Joaco Cañas. “They scored two goals but overall we were the better team. If we can fix the mistakes and read the game better then we can make it to the final, but it won’t be easy.”

Captain Simon Greatwich also expressed his frustration but was pleased with the performance of the squad as a whole.

“I was happy with how we played. The work rate, the heart. We just didn’t kill the game off, so we were punished.”

Greatwich was coy about the strategy Manila would approach for the contest.

“We will try a few variations in training this week. In the game we will have to see how Global set up. But we don’t want to concede, we also have to be cautious. We also need to be clinical with our chances.”

Meralco coach Aris Caslib agrees with Greatwich, saying, “we just have to prepare for all possible approaches of Global,” but asserts that first and foremost, “we have to stop their transition and control the front players.”

The match is doubly important since the winner not only reaches the final but will also get a slot in the AFC Cup reserved for the two best PFL clubs. One team could even possibly reach the top-tier AFC Champions League, should it squeak through a qualifying phase.

The AFC Cup is an international club competition that in the past few years Global, Kaya, and Ceres have played in. No Filipino club has ever qualified for the AFC Champions League, where the strongest Asian clubs from the best Asian nations play.

It appears that the third-placer in the PFL may also have a chance to play in the AFC Cup.

The vaunted Meralco defense of Milan Nikolic, Lee Jeong Min and Joaco Cañas will need to be in form to corral an array of Global weapons, namely Minegishi, Rufo Sanchez, and Darryl Roberts. Paolo Salenga, who came off the bench to assist on the Minegishi goal, is also a major threat.

Meanwhile, Caslib’s own arsenal, consisting of strikers Curt Dizon, Minniecon, and Connor Tacagni, will be under pressure to perform.

Tickets for the game will be P20 for bleachers and P50 for the grandstand. Tickets will be available at the gate. Fans and media are advised to enter via the P. Ocampo gate since the Adriatico gate of Rizal Memorial will be closed.

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