By Alder Almo (philstar.com)
MANILA, Philippines – It was a finale that lived up to the hype as the battle between the finest homegrown booters and a collection of the best foreign-bred talents.
Protecting its turf against the invasion of the Fil-foreigners and an emerging force in Loyola Meralco Sparks, Phil. Air Force-Phoenix stamped its class with a 2-nil triumph tonight to capture the 2011 United Football League (UFL) Cup before a 6,000 crowd that packed the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
In a classic battle between offense and defense, the Airmen more than held their own to shut down the potent offensive attack of the erstwhile unbeaten Sparks led by the tournament’s best striker and Phil. Azkals’ stalwart Phil Younghusband, who made 25 goals entering the finals.
Phil. Air Force’s Ian Araneta, who is Younghusband’s back-up in the national team, made his 19th goal in the cup to open up the scoring with a well-executed set piece by the Airmen in a riveting finals that saw a lot shoving and shouting between the players from the national team.
Araneta’s Azkal teammate Chieffy Caligdong started the play by slipping past Loyola’s midfield defense. The ball passed through Yanti Barsales before Randy Belaong set up Araneta for the lightning quick goal that caught Loyola goalie Ref Cuaresma flat footed in the 39th minute.
Spurned by the Airmen’s goal in the first half, the Sparks tried to relive their amazing come-from-behind win in the semis to no avail.
James Younghusband’s connected with a header from Mark Hartmann’s corner kick that could have been the match-tying goal seven minutes into the second half. But the referee disallowed the goal due to Hartmann’s premature kick.
With the Sparks racing against time, they relentlessly attacked the Airmen’s defense. But the tournament’s best goal keeper Tats Mercado and Air Force’s backline defense more than held their own best typified in a crazy sequence late in the match wherein five straight attempts by Loyola still failed to result in a game-tying goal.
The ageless Barsales sealed the deal with a bending goal on top of the box after eluding past two Loyola defenders just seconds into the 90th minute.
Barsales later won the Golden Ball Award and the Agility Award while Phil Younghusband consoled himself with the Golden Boot Award after the heartbreaking loss.
Phil. Air Force’s cohesion proved vital in stimying the Sparks’ attempt at glory starting off with a massive build-up in the off-season that saw them acquire the Younghusbands and Hartmanns to bolster its chances.
The Airmen took pride of having an all-homegrown team as earmarked by Mercado after the match.
“Kami po ay all-Filipino kaya proud kami. Kami ang no.1 football club sa buong bansa,” exclaimed a proud Mercado.
In the first match, dethroned cup champion Global salvaged the third place trophy with a 2-1 victory over Kaya Cignal.