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Bacolod City: Ceres Negros were crowned AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal champions on Wednesday after a 2-0 victory over Singapore’s Home United in the second leg of the ASEAN Zonal Final, which saw the Filipino side reverse a 2-1 deficit from the first leg to win 3-2 on aggregate.

Next up for The Busmen is Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol in the Inter-Zone Semi-finals in two weeks’ time, and if Ceres can produce anything like the first-half urgency and second-half tactical nous they showed against Home United, then there is little reason why they cannot prolong their remarkable run.

 

Never before has a side from the Philippines performed so well in the continental competition but, a goal down from the first leg, Ceres came roaring out of the blocks at Pana-ad Park and Football Stadium as they refused to let their visitors settle into the game.

Key to Ceres’ strong start was left-sided midfielder Iain Ramsay, who was kept largely on the periphery last week when he didn't create a single chance, yet was instrumental in an opening period that stunned Home United. 


How Ceres attacked Home United from the left

Inside 15 minutes Ramsay had teed up Jose Porteria for the opening goal on two minutes, before his cross from almost an identical position was handled by Abdil Qaiyyim soon after, only for Spaniard Fernando Rodriguez to fire the ensuing penalty over the crossbar.

It was one-way traffic as The Busmen, laying siege to the Home United goal, chased the goal that would put them in control of the tie. In the first 45 minutes they had almost two times as many attempts as the visitors managed and, when Manuel Ott curled a delightful free-kick into the top left corner three minutes before the break, the 2-0 half-time scoreline was no less than they deserved.

Unsurprisingly, Ceres sat back deeper after the interval, allowing their opponents to take possession of the ball. Twelve shots before the break was reduced to just six in the ensuing 45 minutes – three of which were from outside the area while only one was on target.

But Home United were unable to take the initiative, despite enjoying almost 68 percent of the possession in the second half compared to just 46.5 percent in the opening 45 minutes. Furthermore, only five efforts on goal – fewer than in the first half – was proof that the visitors were faced with a stubborn obstacle to overcome.

Knowing that if the scores remained the same they would create history for the Philippines, Ceres defended resolutely, making three times as many interceptions – 18 compared to six – in the second period than they did in the first.

Stephan Schrock was one of many heroes in yellow, with the Philippines international producing an action-packed performance in which he rarely gave the ball away. The midfielder won more duels (14) and created more chances (5) than anyone on the pitch.

Home United’s dangerman, eight-goal Croatian Stipe Plazibat, did clip the top of the woodwork in the final 10 minutes as the Singaporean side tried in vain to force extra-time. But this was the hosts’ night and Ceres can now look forward to a trip to Dushanbe to face 2015 runners-up Istiklol in a fortnight in what will be uncharted territory. 

Photos: Stephen Tan & Lagardère Sports