SINGAPORE - Home United will bring home an away-goal advantage in their quest to become the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup Asean champions after holding Ceres Negros to a 1-1 draw in Bacolod on Wednesday (Aug 1).
The Singapore Premier League side will earn that accolade with a win or a goal-less draw against the Filipino side next Wednesday in the second leg of this AFC Cup Asean Zone final - "the biggest game of their season", according to Home coach Aidil Sharin.
The victors will move on to the inter-zone play-off semi-finals, where they will play North Korean side April 25 Sports Club on Aug 21 at home and Aug 28 away.
At the Panaad Park and Stadium on Wednesday night, two Australian replacements struck for their respective teams on their AFC Cup debuts.
Ceres' Blake Powell, signed to cover their suspended top striker Bienvenido Maranon, had promised a goal a game since his arrival and did not take long to deliver his third in three games.
In the eighth minute, his clever turn drew a foul by Shakir Hamzah in the area and Powell found the bottom corner with his penalty.
However, the Protectors equalised just 15 minutes later through their own Aussie attacker, Isaka Cernak, who took the place of the injured Sirina Camara.
Wily playmaker Shahril Ishak did superbly to contort his body and divert Izzdin Shafiq's corner towards goal. The header bounced off the bar and Cernak was on hand to prod the ball over the line.
The hosts poured forward in search of a winner, but they could not find a way past Home goalkeeper Rudy Khairullah and his resolute defence.
While Ceres were missing Maranon, they could still call on a star-studded squad that included former Napoli custodian Toni Doblas, Switzerland-born midfielder Martin Steuble, Belgium-born wide man Jeffrey Christiaens, and Germany-born former Bundesliga midfielders Stephan Schrock and brothers Mike and Manuel Ott.
In contrast, with South Korean Song Ui-yong and Frenchman Camara injured, the Protectors fielded just one import in the form of Cernak, just like they have done on most occasions during their improbable march to the zonal final, while their opponents could deploy up to four.
Aidil said: "Isaka was tremendous as a new player, while the local boys showed what they could do with true team spirit. We didn't give up when we were down 1-0, and to play like we did against such a good team away and take home a score draw is a good result.
"But it is far from over. It is just half-time, but the boys know this is their best chance to win silverware and have something to show for all the hard work we have put in since January.
"We should have Song back, and we will definitely not be playing for 0-0 because that is not the way to play football. We will play to win, it is the biggest game of our season and it is in our hands to win it."