Football: Belief drives Protectors in bid for AFC glory

Home United players celebrating during their 4-1 win over the Young Lions in the Singapore Premier League, on June 6, 2018.
Home United players celebrating during their 4-1 win over the Young Lions in the Singapore Premier League, on June 6, 2018.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Home aim to repeat away win but are wary even though Ceres' top scorer is suspended

We've done it once, we can do it again.

That will be the mantra ringing in the heads of Singapore Premier League side Home United's players when they line up to face Philippine side Ceres Negros in the first leg of the AFC Cup Asean zonal final at Panaad Park in Bacolod City.

The tie is a rematch of last year's final, which Ceres won 3-2 on aggregate and the second leg will be played at the Jalan Besar Stadium next Wednesday.

But the Protectors' head coach Aidil Sharin wants his charges to focus on another meeting between the two sides, which took place only three months ago. Then, the two sides squared off in a Group F game in Bacolod, which Home won 2-0 with late goals.

The result helped Home top the group with a better head-to-head record, after the two sides drew 1-1 at Jalan Besar two months earlier.

Aidil said yesterday: "Of course, we cannot assume we will win again just because we won once.

"But the result in April gives us belief that we can beat them at their home ground. And keep a clean sheet too."

Shutting out Ceres' attack will be no mean feat.

The Busmen, as they are nicknamed, strolled to a second consecutive Philippines Football League (PFL) title last Wednesday by thumping bottom side Global Cebu 6-1. Five days earlier, Ceres had posted a 7-1 win over Global.

Ceres are also the league's leading scorers with 59 goals from 22 games. However, they will be without ace striker Bienvenido Maranon in both matches against Home. The Spaniard is the AFC Cup's joint-leading scorer with 10 goals and the PFL's top scorer with 13.

But he was slapped with a two-match ban by the AFC for use of abusive language and gestures in a semi-final game against Yangon United on May 16. He was also fined US$1,000 (S$1,360).

Said Aidil: "I watched their last two games, and five of their 13 goals were scored by Maranon.

"But we cannot afford to think that they will be weaker without him. They still have many good players and they will be able to replace him in the team."

Indeed, a look at Ceres' squad explains their dominance in their local league. They boast former Real Betis and Napoli goalkeeper Toni Doblas between the sticks, and are packed with foreign-born Philippine internationals.

These include Switzerland-born midfielder Martin Steuble, Belgium-born wide man Jeffrey Christiaens, and Germany-born former Bundesliga midfielders Kevin Ingreso, brothers Mike and Manuel Ott, and Stephan Schrock.

Nevertheless, Aidil says his players are keen to make up for falling at the final hurdle last year.

"I will remind them of what happened and hopefully it will motivate them further," said the coach.

Home's top scorer Shahril Ishak, who has 15 goals in 27 games this season, added: "It has been an unbelievable journey for us to get to the final.

"We are proud to be here, and I am sure all the boys will give their hearts for the game."

CERES NEGROS V HOME UNITED

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2018, with the headline 'Belief drives protectors'. Print Edition | Subscribe