Offense won Philippine Air Force Phoenix games, but it was defense that won the Airmen the championship.
Air Force relied on a huge defensive effort anchored by goalkeeper Tats Mercado — and more than a little luck — to keep the sheets clean against the most dangerous offensive team in the tournament, en route to a 2-nil win over the Loyola Meralco Sparks in the championship match of the 2011 UFL Cup Saturday at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
The victory bolstered Air Force’s claim as the king of Philippine club football before a banner crowd of 6,000 fans. The defending league champions, the Airmen also avenged their championship loss in last year’s Cup finals to Global FC. It did so by shutting out a vaunted Loyola offense that did not score less than two goals all tournament long.
The Sparks controlled the ball for most of the first half, with Air Force finding the occasional shot at goal. Despite Loyola’s dominance, veteran Azkals striker Ian Araneta opened the scoring for Air Force in the 38th minute with a left-footed goal after fan favorite Chieffy Caligdong broke through the Sparks’ midfield coverage.
Loyola came out with renewed vigor in the second half. At the 52nd minute, James Younghusband headed in what looked like the game-tying goal for Loyola after a Mark Hartmann free kick, but the score was disallowed after the referee ruled that the latter had prematurely made his kick.
Loyola kept on the attack, but its shots were repulsed by Air Force led by Mercado, who did everything from saving goals, directing the Air Force defense, and even jawing with Loyola star Phil Younghusband. At the 84th minute, Loyola looked like it would finally put one on board after Mercado made a rare mistake after a Hartmann free kick, but Alexander Elnar’s attempt hit the crossbar.
While Loyola was trying to go for the equalizer, Air Force capitalized in the 90th minute, as a defensive breakdown by the Sparks allowed ageless veteran Yanti Barsales to score against an out of position goalkeeper Ref Cuarema to seal the championship.
It was a rough and tumble game that saw a total of nine yellow cards — five for Loyola and four for Air Force. Several scuffles involving teammates with the Philippine national team added color to the game.
The battle lines were clear prior to the match, as the two teams represented different sides of Philippine football. Air Force, composed wholly of homegrown players, have long ruled the Philippine club football scene, while Loyola, led by popular foreign-born Filipinos the Younghusbands, are coming off a very strong offseason build-up.
After the match, Mercado admitted that having an all-homegrown lineup was a point of pride for his club.
“Kami po ay all-Filipino, kaya proud kami. Wala kaming Fil-[foreigners]” said the burly goalkeeper. “Kami ang No. 1 football team sa Pilipinas!”
In the day’s earlier game, Global defeated Kaya to grab the third place trophy.
The two finalists also dominated the individual awards, with Barsales winning the Golden Ball award — the Cup’s equivalent of the most valuable player award. Mercado brought home the Golden Gloves award as the best goalkeeper in the tournament while Phil Younghusband won the tournament’s Golden Boot award for leading the competition in scoring with 25 goals. Barsales also took home the Healthway Agility award.