It’s been a whirlwind January for Double-winners Ceres-Negros FC, having to juggle bedding in new signings and working off the close-season rust with playing 3 consecutive AFC Champions League qualifiers, but at the end of the road, another campaign in the AFC Cup beckons. We know where they are now, and let’s take a look at their opponents in the group stages. Prepare your passports and air miles, it’s a hell of an itenerary!
Roadmap – Ceres’ AFC Champions League lookback
Round 1 – Ceres defeated Shan United 3-2
Round 2 – Ceres defeated Port 1-0
Round 3 – FC Tokyo defeated Ceres 0-2
– The most impressive part of Ceres’ run in the AFC Champions League qualifiers is that they got to the 3rd qualifying round again for the 2nd time in 3 years. Coming out of the qualifiers with an even goal difference is also commendable considering they went straight from the close season to 3 straight competitive matches, and for 45 minutes they also stood toe-to-toe with the J1 giants of FC Tokyo. In the end though, the sakura-colored curtains drew on their run in the Champions League, and the final whistle in the Ajisuta bade them to the AFC Cup. Now, what will our friends from Negros see?
Airmiles and New Horizons – Ceres’ AFC Cup group
Opponent #1 – Svay Rieng FC
How they got here: C-League champions, defeated Master 7 7-1 in the AFC Cup qualifying playoffs
Continental record: 2nd appearance overall; last was in the 2014 AFC President’s Cup
– Our first challenger is a fresh face from a nation that Ceres have been to before in C-League champions Svay Rieng. Bouncing back from a relatively poor 2018 to win the Cambodian gong last season, they make their AFC Cup debut this year, and based on their play-off domination of Master 7, they could be one to put up a fight.
The ones to watch would be Cameroonian forward Befolo Mbarga, who pulled Master 7’s defense apart across both legs while cutting in across the left wing and American defender Jonathan Campbell, whose 6’1″ frame should cause problems for Ceres’ attackers.
Games vs Ceres: February 11 @ Rizal Memorial; April 29 @ Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium
Opponent #2 – Bali United
How they got here: Liga I champions
Continental record: 2nd AFC Cup appearance; last appearance in 2018
– From the fresh to the relatively familiar, Bali United step into the spotlight again. Bouncing back from 11th in 2018 to win the Liga I last season, they’re looking for revenge after a disastrous AFC Cup campaign where they finished 4th in their group and failed to get results against a Global side entering the early stages of their recent collapse. The question now is which Bali side will show up, with their recent history being one of inconsistency.
The ones to watch on that squad would be Garudas mainstays Stefano Lillipaly and Ricky Fajrin and Portuguese veteran Paulo Sergio Goncalves.
Games vs Ceres: March 11 @ Rizal Memorial; April 14 @ Kapten I Dipta Stadium
Opponent #3 – Than Quang Ninh
How they got here: 3rd place in V.League 1
Continental record: 2nd AFC Cup appearance; last in 2017
– Another year, another trip to Vietnam – yet a different opponent as Ceres face off against Than Quang Ninh for the first time. The Miners may have finished 3rd, but being a distant 3rd to both the disqualified FC Hanoi and TP Ho Chi Minh would lead to questions if they can do anything more than 3rd in the group. A 2nd-place finish is possible though if Bali United’s campaign is much like their 2018 tilt.
Arguably the ones to watch on this TQN squad are strikers Mac Hong Quan, who hit 9 V.League goals last season, and Jeremie Lynch, who hit 10 for Hai Phong last season.
Games vs Ceres: February 25 @ Rizal Memorial; May 13 @ Cam Pha Stadium
GALAXY BRAIN GROUP PREDICTIONS
With the disclaimer that anything can happen and injuries are always a factor, this looks to be one of the softest groups Ceres have landed on in the AFC Cup. Being that all of their opponents are unknown quantities, there’s still enough questions within each squad to safely place Ceres at worst as group runners-up, though a flying group win is more likely. After that though? The road is wide open, so hopefully the Busmen can drop the clutch and zoom off into the sunset.