The PFL season is now down to the final 4. Only one will be crowned the first PFL Champion, while the two finalists gets the honor of representing the league in the AFC competitions. With 28 games as evidence, KP now profiles the ins and outs of each Semifinalist.
We are starting with the surprise matchup of First and Fourth.
League table: 1st
Goals Scored: 43
Goals Conceded: 33
Key Man: Milan Nikolic
The Serbian defender captures the necessary qualities the Capital boys have showed this season. Despite losing their greatest assets midseason, Meralco soldiered on via Milan’s superb defensive acumen and popping up in the goal sheet once in a while, as does his teammates. The defensive solidity Meralco has showed, anchored by Milan and Joaco Cañas, was able to fend off Ceres from the top spot and ensure home advantage for the rest of the Finals Series.
Strengths: Collective Effort, Tactics
Questions arose when the Sparks sanctioned the exit of the Younghusbands to Davao. Regardless, the club exhibited immense collective effort to ensure that destiny is with their hands. An example of this is that despite being top of the table, not a single Meralco player is in the top 10 goalscorers.
A key factor that accentuates this collective effort is the unusual tactics Aris Caslib has implemented as compared to the rest of the league. His 3-man backline ensured enough coverage of opposing attackers, while a slow, methodical buildup either in the 3-5-2, 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 setup ensured the Sparks dominate play in midfield and the scoring to come from a lot of unexpected sources.
Weaknesses: Wing Defending, Lack of Dominant Striker
As good as Meralco has been overall, Caslib has been unable to solve the Pandora’s box of wing defending. Ceres exploited it in the 0-7 demolition earlier, Stallion countered through the wings in their 1-1 draw, and even Kaya won a Derby by letting Eric Giganto rip through the immense space Tyler Matas and Alvin Sarmiento leaves behind them.
Also, the lack of a focal point in attack leaves Meralco hanging in crucial situations. As valiant as the collective scoring effort maybe, Tahj Minniecon cannot be relied on every game to spark the Sparks. Jinggoy Valmayor has yet to truly recover from his UP scoring machine heydays, while Curt Dizon is more of a provider than goal threat. As an example, Meralco has scored the least from among the top 4, even Global Cebu has scored more. When the chips are down, someone needs to step up.
League table: 4th
Goals Scored: 47
Goals Conceded: 37
Key Man: Rufo Sanchez
Ever since his return to the country, Señor Rufo has not missed a beat. With only half a season, he managed to score 8 goals and even get a hattrick. The new look of the Cebu club midseason ensured that he is its focal point, and the weight of carrying Global seems to be no problem for the Spaniard.
Strengths: Experience, Attack
Global’s biggest pro is that they have been here on multiple occassions. Even during UFL days, Global has been consistent in challenging for Cup and League Honors. At least in the local setting, Global is a juggernaut while it is an emerging force in the ASEAN club scene. Taking the Singaporean powerhouse Albirex Niigata to penalties and testing the limit of the ASEAN powerhouses Johor Darul Tazim and Home United in the AFC Cup is no mean feat.
Another key strength of the Blues is their experienced and talented attack. Rufo Sanchez and Darryl Roberts have dovetailed greatly as strike partners. Supporting them are Pika Minegihi and Paolo Salenga, which have to be great wing bedrocks. When the odds are stacked, Captain Misagh Bahadoran may come off the bench and provide even more attack. Global is certainly a tough team proposition on a bad day.
Weaknesses: Depleted Squad, External Pressures
With all their pedigree, Global surprisingly finished 4th this season. In a normal league setting, they would’ve missed out on Asian competitions. A key factor of this is fatigue. With as many as 7 players called up to the Azkals the last time, partnered by deep AFC Cup and Singapore Cup runs, and a thin squad devastated by injuries and suspensions to key players at some points (Amani Aguinaldo, Misagh Bahadoran, Paul Mulders, etc.), Global is a tired team.
Another headache for Global has been the swirl of bad news and rumors involving the club. From the early season coaching changes that were baffling at times, to the midseason player shuffle that saw their two top scorers at the time leave (Sekou Sylla, Shu Sasaki), to rumors of financial problems and now the unavailability of Cebu City Sports Complex for the Semis, Global had only ever had good news in the pitch. Whichever mental state the players and staff are in right now, the problems should be put aside to concentrate on the task at hand. In the end, the inaugural silverware of the PFL maybe the ultimate antidote for their troubles.