Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bleachers' Brew #304 Motivations and an emerging rivalry

This appears in the Monday, April 2, 2012 edition of the Business Mirror.

Motivations and an emerging rivalry
by rick olivares

This was one match that the Loyola Meralco Sparks needed no motivation in getting up for… their first meeting with Philippine Air Force since the 2011 UFL Cup Finals.

After 96 minutes of play, the Sparks will have to wait for the second round meeting with the defending champs to settle a score. The match ended with at 3-3 with Air Force notching two goals in stoppage time to snatch a “won” game from Meralco that left the Sparks seething over what they perceived to be poor calls from referee.

Just as it was in the cup finals, Loyola dominated possession and launched a barrage of shots at the Airmen’s goal (26-14). Unlike the cup finals where the Sparks were unable to find the back of the net, this time, they scored. And they did early on by sending two past Air Force goalkeeper Tats Mercado.

Loyola forward Mark Hartmann showed why he is the best free kick taker in the business (although Global’s Angel Guirado will give him a run for his money) when he targeted Phil Younghusband inside the box and the league’s leading scorer headed in a goal in the 13th minute. Air Force forward Ian Araneta made a case for himself that he still cannot be overlooked when it comes to playing for the national team when his wondrous free kick dove in hard and fast past Loyola keeper Ref Cuaresma for the equalizer 10 minutes later.

Four minutes later, an Araneta foul just outside Air Force’s box saw Hartmann line up once more for a direct free kick. It was just an spectacular as Araneta’s earlier goal as this one had Mercado flailing in the air; 2-1 for Loyola.

Unlike their last meeting where Loyola preferred the long ball (until the second half), this time the midfield of Byeong Jeol Jeong, Anto Gonzales, Davide Cortina, and James Younghusband played a more controlled tiki taka style with a series of forward, square, and back passes. That made for better build-ups as they carved up the Airmen’s defense.

Air Force was not wholly without attempts. They threatened with their trademark speed (as they were faster than the Loyola defenders) and showed the vulnerable central midfield of the Sparks. But they suffered from poor wing play were unable to largely get anything inside the box. The absence of Chieffy Caligdong, still recuperating from that injury sustained in their recent battle with Global, had him on the bench. On stand by in the event he was needed.

Hartmann later found Younghusband with another free kick that the top striker converted to make it 3-1 and seemingly over. Right before stoppage time, Younghusband found himself with a nifty one-two combo play with Jake Morallo who came in for Byeong. Younghusband split the defense and forced Mercado to rush out. The Loyola striker had to merely slot around but he hammered it wide. In that instance, I wondered, will Loyola rue that missed shot? It sounded preposterous at that instance but I have played and watched this game for so long to know that matches can turn in a heartbeat.

And it did. The Airmen’s inability to stop the Sparks’ passing game saw them play rough and referee Rey Ritaga’s poor handling of the match caused it to get out of hand. Air Force would tackle and take shots but it was Loyola that was caught for the retaliation. When a scuffle broke out in injury time, James Younghusband was given a straight red card that reduced Loyola to ten men.

Incredibly, Loyola suffered a brain freeze right there. Instead of sending everyone back to defend, they opted to bring the ball forward. Air Force dug deep into their reservoir of determination and attacked. The Sparks’ central backs were caught flatfooted on two occasions and Joebel Bermejo and Araneta (showing his stout fighting heart) scored goals in succession to stun Loyola. Araneta’s goal was especially stunning as his defender and Cuaresma played the angles quite well. The ball evaded the outstretched arms of Cuaresma as the spin on the ball propelled it towards the goal. It was like a Bata Reyes shot with the billiard ball going to its inevitable pocket destination. Goal and the late equalizer! And Air Force head coach Sgt. Edzel Bracamonte turned to the crowd and pumped his fist.

When the final whistle blew, it was as if Loyola had been swindled out of a fortune. While they lost two of the three valuable points, vengeance had been stayed. The draw allowed Global to leapfrog past them after their earlier demolition of a Kaya side that was found wanting in so many fronts.

As for Air Force, they celebrated and how. It was like that masterful triumph last December. It may have in fact, resuscitated their season as they have only played seven matches and claimed eight points off them. Should they win their final two games of the first round, they will have 14 points and be back in the thick of the fight and their title defense.

Loyola in the meantime has a 6-1-1 slate and 19 points with a game at hand from Global (versus Pasargad).

Inside Loyola’s locker room, disappointment hung heavy in the air despite team management’s best efforts to ask their squad to go out with their chins up. “We’re still on top,” said team manager Woowee Evangelista. “And we’ll meet them again.”

The team gathered for a prayer that James led but not without a few words that still dripped of disappointment. “That wasn’t a prayer,” laughed Phil. “That was a petition.” The locker room erupted in laughter and the heavy cloud of disappointment was mostly lifted.

But for many on the team, they were thinking ahead when they play Air Force a second time – in this burgeoning rivalry that is turning white hot - in the league season. “There’s no short supply of motivation,” said Phil looking ahead. “None at all.”


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