By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
LOCAL side Ceres-Negros FC solidified its standing as the best football club in Southeast Asia today after winning the Asian Football Confederation Cup ASEAN Zonal Final over Singapore’s Home United FC on Wednesday night at the Panaad Park and Football Stadium in Bacolod City.
Trailing the two-leg final entering the contest following its 2-1 loss in the opener last week in Singapore, “The Busmen” rose to the challenge in front of their hometown fans by taking the final leg, 2-0, to win on aggregate, 3-2.
The victory not only secured for Ceres the ASEAN title but it also thrust it to the next round of Asia’s secondary club football tournament hosted by the AFC against Istiklol FC of Tajikistan in the inter-zonal semifinals that will begin later this month.
In their win over Home United, The Busmen were towed by a solid start to the match, punctuated by goals from OJ Porteria and Manny Ott.
Mr. Porteria hardly wasted time helping Ceres to the board, scoring just two minutes into the game.
He redirected an Iain Ramsay cross past Home United goalkeeper Hassan Sunny that immediately sent the team and their fans to celebration.
Ceres continued to put on the pressure on the visitors, putting itself in several scoring opportunities.
Its aggressiveness eventually was rewarded anew when Mr. Ott found the bottom of the net in the 42nd minute, curling a free kick at the top left corner to help his team to a 2-0 lead by the halftime break.
Home United tried hard to make up for lost ground and bring its slowly slipping AFC Cup bid back to life, led by star forward Stipe Plazibat, but Ceres would make sure to stay on top of things and not allow any slippage on its part to seal the win.
In winning the ASEAN title, Ceres coach Risto Vidacovic highlighted his players’ “grit and determination” to see their cause through as a key component in their victory.
For game hero Ott, meanwhile, he said they take pride in their victory, especially since they really worked hard for it.
“We were working hard for the entire season to achieve this goal. It was a total team effort. Everyone was fighting hard for us to go to the next round. We wanted to win this so bad and I think it showed in how we played tonight,” said Mr. Ott in a postmatch interview.
“We deserve this win. And now we are off to the next round,” he added.
In the inter-zonal semifinals, Ceres will face Istiklol, the 2015 AFC Cup runner-up.
Istiklol topped Group D in the group stages with a record of five wins and a draw for 16 points to go directly to the inter-zonal playoff semifinals.
Ceres and Istiklol begin their two-leg inter-zonal semifinals on Aug. 22 at the latter’s Hisor Central Stadium in Hisor, Tajikistan, while the return leg happens on Sept. 9 at the Panaad Park and Football Stadium.
Prior to that, Ceres returns to the Philippines Football League this weekend to take on Kaya FC-Makati tomorrow at the University of Makati Stadium at 4 p.m.
Ceres is currently fourth in the PFL with a record of 7-1-2 and 22 points.