FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks ahead to the first leg of the AFC Cup ASEAN Zone final which will see Ceres-Negros reunite with familiar foes Home United.
What’s the occasion?
Well, it’s only the chance to become the AFC Cup’s champions of Southeast Asia, which certainly provides plenty of bragging rights considering the best of the region – apart from Thailand’s representatives – take part.
The zonal segregation was first introduced last year and it was actually Philippine giants Ceres who became the tournament’s inaugural ASEAN champions, before they fell to Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol in the inter-zone semi-finals.
— AFC Cup (@AFCCup) July 30, 2018
So, Philippines v Singapore – these teams probably won’t be familiar with each other then?
On the contrary, it was in fact Home United who lost to Ceres in the 2017 ASEAN Zone final. The Protectors had won the first leg on home soil 2-1 but were beaten 2-0 at the Panaad Park and Stadium – the venue of Wednesday’s first leg – to lose out.
Both teams were then drawn to meet again in this year’s group stage and played out a 1-1 draw at Jalan Besar Stadium, before Home went some way in exacting revenge by defeating the Busmen 2-0 in Bacolod to finish top of Group F.
Any major plot developments leading up to the game?
The standout is clearly the absence of Ceres’ Spanish marksman Bienvenido Maranon, who has netted over 50 goals since the start of last season.
— AFC Cup (@AFCCup) July 24, 2018
The man affectionately known as ‘Bienve’ to the Ceres faithful was sent off in the zonal semi-final clash against Yangon United for unsportsmanlike conduct, after appearing to taunt an opponent following a goal.
Maranon was subsequently found guilty of “using abusive language and gestures” and “bringing the game into disrepute” and a two-match suspension means he will miss both legs of the ASEAN Zone final.
Does that mean Home are the favourites going into this one?
Not a chance. Even without Maranon, Ceres still have plenty of firepower to call upon in the form of Stephan Schrock, Patrick Reichelt and Mike Ott to name but a few.
Yet, the absence of Maranon is certainly a boost for Home, who will have one less headache to worry about.
The Protectors are not without selection worries of their own having been hampered by injury recently, but are likely to field new Australian import Isaka Cernak.
Are both sides in good form going into this one?
Ceres are on a high having recently retained the Philippines Football League title but, in all honestly, it has been a foregone conclusion for quite some time.
The Busmen were crowned PFL champions for a second consecutive year following a 6-1 win over Global Cebu and are currently 21 points ahead of their nearest rivals.
Good morning Champs! pic.twitter.com/N3JRhN0Diz
— Ceres-Negros FC (@CeresNegrosFC) July 25, 2018
59 goals in 22 games highlights how dominant they have been, with Maranon (13 goals), Ott (9), Reichelt (7), Schrock and OJ Porteria (6 each) all scoring for fun.
Meanwhile, Home sit a respectable third in the Singapore Premier League but it is also a competition that has already been decided, with Albirex Niigata (S) wrapping up the title recently with plenty of games to spare.
Home are just one point behind second-placed Tampines Rovers but 20 behind Albirex, which should illustrate just how far away the rest of the pack are at the moment.
Still, the Protectors have had some standout performers this season, especially in attacking duo Song Ui-young and Shahril Ishak – who have combined for 28 of their team’s 57 goals thus far in 2018 – although the former has been ruled out for Wednesday.
But Home’s key strength this season has been how well they perform as a unit, with everyone from Abdil Qaiyyim at the back, Izzdin Shafiq in the engine room, and Faritz Hameed and Hafiz Nor in the wide areas performing their role to perfection.
Well, with all that said… let’s have a prediction?
An all-action, entertaining first leg to get things started would be nice and will set up nicely for the return encounter in Singapore.
Let’s go with a 2-2 draw to keep things evenly poised.