Ceres-Negros snap up Philippines stars Ott, Aguinaldo

Ceres-Negros have added more reinforcements ahead of the 2018 campaign with the signings of Philippines internationals Mike Ott and Amani Aguinaldo.

Both transfers were announced on Wednesday and takes the number of Ceres’ new arrivals to five, following their previous captures of ex-Real Betis keeper Toni Doblas, Japanese striker Takumi Uesato and Philippines international Sean Kane.

Ott arrives with plenty of experience having played in Germany with the second teams of 1860 Munich and Nuremberg, as well as in Thailand with Angthong.

A full international despite only being 22, Ott will now get the chance to play with older brother Manny, who has been a key player at the club since 2014.

Meanwhile, Aguinaldo – also 22 – arrives at the Panaad Park and Stadium as arguably the best centre-back in Philippines at the moment.

Already a veteran of two AFF Suzuki Cups, the former Global Cebu star will add plenty of steel and class to the Ceres backline, although he will only feature midway through the year as he continues to recover from a serious knee injury.

Ceres will kick off their season next Tuesday against Myanmar’s Shan United in the first preliminary round of qualification for the AFC Champions League.

Should they negotiate their way past that tie, they will then have to beat Australia’s Brisbane Roar and China’s Tianjin Quanjian in order to take their place in Group E.

Nonetheless, if they are eliminated at any time, they will head straight for AFC Cup, where they have already been drawn in Group F alongside Home United, Shan United and Boeung Ket.

Photo credit: Ceres-Negros FC

2018 will be a big year for ASEAN Football

With the new year upon us, FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks at the players and teams in ASEAN football who are set for a big 2018.

1) Trio flying ASEAN flag at AFC U-23 Championship

It won’t take long for the first major tournament to kick off with Asia’s best Under-23 teams competing at the AFC U-23 Championship in China.

For the first time since the tournament’s inception in 2013, Southeast Asia will have three representatives (four, if you include fellow ASEAN Football Federation member Australia) present.

Thailand and Vietnam are back again after qualifying two years ago and will be looking to improve on their group-stage exit, while Malaysia – under the stewardship of the experienced Ong Kim Swee – are preparing for their tournament debut and will face Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in Group C.

Vietnam look to have been handed the toughest task as they are in Group D with Korea Republic, Australia and Syria.

On the other hand, Thailand will be quietly optimistic in their chances of reaching the knockout round from a Group B that contains defending champions Japan, but also two very beatable teams in DPR Korea and Palestine.

2) Local leagues overflowing with ASEAN flavour

The decision by Thailand and Malaysia’s domestic leagues to introduce a foreign signing quota specifically for ASEAN imports already looks to be a brilliant masterstroke, both on and off the field.

While the dream for every Myanmar or Cambodia fans is to one day see Aung Thu and Chan Vathanaka grace the biggest stages, taking a smaller step in the right direction is not always a bad thing.

Happy to join with @pahangfa_official @officialligasupermalaysia

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On the field, a premier talent from a neighbouring country can easily be better than a B or C-grade foreigner from Europe, South America or Africa. And off the field, the benefits reaped could be equal if not far greater.

Imagine how many Cambodian fans will now be following every Pahang match? Or how many Myanmar supporters will now be eagerly trying to get their hands on a Police Tero jersey with “Aung Thu 10” on the back?

Either way, the T1 League and MSL will have added intrigue and excitement purely because the likes of Hariss Harun, Evan Dimas, Kyaw Ko Ko, Thierry Chantha Bin and Hoang Vu Samson will be gracing them.

And, should the ASEAN import rule prove to be a success, it would pave the way for competitions like the Liga 1, S.League and V.League 1 to follow suit.

3) Can Indonesia, Philippines maintain momentum?

2017 saw a rebirth for domestic football in two Southeast Asian countries as Indonesia’s Liga 1 and the Philippines Football League had their inaugural campaigns.

While there is still room for much improvement – the PFL especially was plagued by several administrative and scheduling issues – there is no denying that both were a success.

The Liga 1 title race went down to the wire and, while traditional heavyweights like Arema and Persib Bandung faltered, potential powerhouses emerged in the form of Bhayangkara and Bali United.

And, although it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, the PFL’s Finals Series led to a thrilling and fitting conclusion as Philippines’ top four teams faced off for top honours, with Ceres-Negros ultimately emerging triumphant.

The first year is always expected to be a learning experience and expectations were never going to be too high.

In 2018, however, the pressure will be on both organisations to only replicate, but better, the success they have had.

4) Asia beckons as Thailand lead the way

Few would argue that – right now in ASEAN football – Thailand are leading the way on all fronts.

They are the strongest national team at the moment, both at senior and age group level, have clubs regularly competing amongst the continent’s best in the AFC Champions League, and are now exporting homegrown stars like Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda to a top Asian competition such as the J1 League.

2018 will be another platform for Thailand to show that they continue to make progress.

Buriram United would do well to reach the knockout round of the Champions League, while it’s high time Thailand had more than one representative in Asia’s premier club competition.

Honourable defeats to Chinese, Japanese and South Korean clubs in the final qualifying round should no longer be seen as acceptable. This year, provided they advance from the second preliminary round, Muangthong United and Chiangrai United have to strive to beat Kashiwa Reysol and Shanghai SIPG respectively at the final hurdle.

And it’s not just the future of Thailand on the line. Instead, they can set the example for the others to strive for.

Don’t forget that Malaysia will also have a team qualifying automatically for the Champions League group stage.

Whether it be Johor Darul Ta’zim, or another one of the teams that have tried but failed to catch them for the past four years, Buriram – over the next six months – could show them that teams like Guangzhou Evergrande, Cerezo Osaka and Jeju United are to be respected but not feared.

5) AFF Suzuki Cup is up for grabs again

Yes, in the grander scheme of things, the AFF Suzuki Cup should not rank as the biggest of prizes in Southeast Asia.

Teams should be setting their sights on loftier targets like qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup, Olympic Games, FIFA U-20 World Cup, FIFA World Cup… the list goes on.

But, there is just something about ASEAN supporters and the Suzuki Cup that can be simply traced back to the pure tribal nature of being a football fan.

Put simply, the Suzuki Cup is the one chance each team gets to claim the status of Southeast Asia’s best team for the following two years.

Everyone wants that.

The new format introduced for this year’s edition also adds a different dimension as the group stage will now be spread across the region, meaning each team will get to host at least two matches.

While it promises to be a logistical nightmare for all involved, it is a brilliant move for passionate fans all over who deserve to watch their heroes in action.

Thailand have conquered all that have come before them since 2014, but they were no longer as untouchable in 2016 as they were two years before as Indonesia gave them a real run for their money.

With Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar rapidly closing the gap, while former champions Malaysia and Singapore will be determined to regain their pride, the 2018 edition of the Suzuki Cup promises to be the most exciting yet.

Ceres’ brave AFC Cup run ended by Istiklol

Ceres-Negros’ AFC Cup dream came to an end on Tuesday after a 1-1 draw against FC Istiklol saw them eliminated from the inter-zone semi-finals 5-1 on aggregate.

The Philippine outfit entered the clash at the Panaad Park and Stadium needing a miracle after a heavy 4-0 first-leg defeat in Dushanbe.

They gave themselves every chance of doing so after taking the lead through a Manuel Herrera effort three minutes after the half-hour mark.

It was not the easiest of headers as Manny Ott floated a corner into the box, but the Spaniard got enough purchase to send it into the back of the net despite Nikola Stosic getting a hand on it.

The goal further shifted to momentum in favour of the hosts and they were putting the opposition defence under plenty of pressure.

However, they were dealt a sucker punch deep into first-half injury-time.

After being cleverly picked out by David Mawutor’s right-wing cross, Dmitry Barkov proceeded to send a lovely first-time effort past Roland Muller at full stretch.

Having conceded a crucial away goal, Ceres now needed to score five goals if they were pull of a remarkable revival and advance.

It was always going to be a bridge too far but, to their credit, the hosts never stopped trying.

Ott could have put them in front once more in the 66th minute when he was slipped through by Bienvenido Maranon, only to be too cute with his finish as it was clawed away by Stostic.

Three minutes later, Istiklol were reduced to ten men when Artem Baranovskiy was shown a straight red, having been adjudged to have caught Kevin Ingreso in the face with his studs while both were tangled on the ground.

But, in the end, the numerical advantage mattered little as Ceres’ brave run in the AFC Cup ultimately came to an end.

CERES-NEGROS: Roland Muller, Kota Kawase, Carli de Murga (Joshua Grommen 90’), Manuel Herrera (Jeffrey Christiaens 57’), OJ Porteria, Manny Ott, Kevin Ingreso, Iain Ramsay, Stephan Schrock, Fernando Rodriguez (Omid Nazari 65’), Bienvenido Maranon.

FC ISTIKLOL: Nikola Stosic, Oleksandr Stetsenko, Artem Baranovskiy, Siyovush Asrorov, Akhtam Nazarov, Jahongir Aliev (Romish Jalilov 71’), David Mawutor, Amirbek Juraboev, Fatkhullo Fathulloev (Muhammadjoni Hasan 76’), Dmitry Barkov, Manuchekhr Dzhalilov (Dilshod Vasiev 64’).

Follow this writer on Twitter @gabetan13

Chhetri fires Bengaluru to big win over 4.25

Bengaluru FC earned a big advantage in the first leg of their AFC Cup Inter-Zone Semi-final on Wednesday as they defeated North Korean side 4.25 (April 25) 3-0 at the Kanteerava Stadium.

A first half goal from Sunil Chhetri, followed by strikes by Udanta Singh and Lenny Rodrigues in the second period saw Albert Roca’s side past the mysterious North Koreans in a game played in near monsoon conditions.

The hosts took the lead on 33 minutes when Udanta Singh was brought down in the box by the Korean keeper Ri Kang as he latched onto a headed pass from Harmanjot Singh. Sunil Chhetri stepping up to dispatch the penalty in cool panenka style.

Udanta then doubled Bengaluru’s lead just six minutes into the second half, capitalising on an error from Pak Jin-myong to run through and slot home from just inside the box.

The rain then took over, turning the pitch into a bog and making it very difficult to play. Chhetri, however, managed to avoid the puddles as he raced clear down the left before delivering a superb cross for Lenny to smash home on the half volley for the third goal 12 minutes from the end.

The win sets Bengaluru up nicely for the return leg in Pyongyang on September 13, although coach Albert Roca was guarded when asked about Bengaluru’s chances.

“It will be very tough in (North) Korea,” he said at the post-match press conference. “But I consider this to be a game of 45 minutes. From here, it’s another part of the game. This team has the capability to trouble us.”

Istiklol 4-0 Ceres: What next for the Busmen?

Ceres Negros’ bid for AFC Cup glory was dealt a big blow on Tuesday as they were beaten 4-0 by FC Istiklol in the first leg of their inter-zone semi-final.

Istiklol drew first blood at the Hisor Stadium in the 25th minute when Akhtam Nazarov converted a penalty, before Romish Jalilov made it 2-0 with a clinical finish right before the break.

Manuchekhr Dzhalilov then grabbed a second-half double to seal a comprehensive win for the hosts, who now have one foot in the inter-zone final, where they will meet either India’s Bengaluru or April 25 of DPR Korea.

Ceres have another 90 minutes on September 12 to attempt an improbable comeback in the second leg but, should that prove too huge an obstacle, it still is not a meaningless tie by any means.

For one, Ceres have done extremely well to become the AFC Cup’s first Southeast Asian champions under the competition’s new format this year.

They are now the flag bearers of the region and will want to give a better account of themselves against their opponents from the Central.

Then, there is also the small matter of challenging for the title in the inaugural season of the Philippines Football League.

The Busmen are currently 14 points off the pace but have five games in hand.

A positive display against strong opposition would undoubtedly hand them plenty of confidence to finish off their domestic campaign.

Still, there is no denying that they were comprehensively outplayed by the Tajikistan outfit on Tuesday and things have to change if they are to avoid a similar defeat in three weeks’ time.

Here, FOX Sports Asia looks at three areas Ceres coach Risto Vidakovic could look at addressing ahead of the return encounter.

Give the Istiklol full-backs more to think about

On paper, the Istiklol full-backs should have had their hands full with Iain Ramsay and OJ Porteria, a duo with no lack of pace and guile.

However, Vidakovic appears to be a fan of playing his wide men on their natural side, contrary to the “inverse wingers” that is now customary in modern football.

While they are by no means the paciest, Istiklol defenders Nazarov and Oleksandr Stetsenko countered that deficiency by constantly showing their opponents to the byline.

Even if a cross was delivered into the box, Bienvenido Maranon and Stephan Schrock were always second favourite to win it.

Perhaps it is time Ceres’ Serbian tactician tweaked things a little.

Ramsay, for one, is perfectly capable of cutting onto his left foot and unleashing an unstoppable piledriver into the top corner, while Schrock would not be out of place being tasked to cause damage coming in from the left.

Shut down Dzhalilov by all means

It is a task easier said than done, but Ceres have to find a way to put the clamps on Dzhalilov.

Granted, the 26-year-old benefits from having terrific supply from the likes of Dmitry Barkov and Fatkhullo Fathulloev, but he is still the one putting the ball into the back of the net from just about everywhere in the final third.

Ceres centre-back Manuel Herrera has his limitations, but he is the kind of player they needed on Tuesday.

The Spaniard would have waited for just about a minute from the opening whistle before hacking down the Istiklol marksman from behind to let his opponent know he was there.

Instead, with him suspended, Dzhalilov and Barkov had a field day running the visitors ragged.

Embrace Panaad with freedom

While the 4-0 scoreline was a fair reflection of the contest, it was not a performance bereft of positives for Vidakovic to take.

For a 20-minute spell at the start of the second period, the Busmen took the game to Istiklol and actually looked the likelier of the two teams to score next.

That momentum was abruptly halted when the hosts netted their third goal against the run of play but, perhaps, the 4-0 deficit could be beneficial come the second leg.

There is no longer any pressure, Ceres are not expected to turn this tie around, and they have already shown this season that they relish nothing more than producing a scintillating display in front of their own fans.

With literally nothing to lose, Ceres should be allowed to play with the freedom to express themselves when they take to the field at the Panaad Park and Stadium come September 12.

Deploy both Fernando Rodriguez and Omid Nazari as target men up front, give the fit-again Patrick Reichelt a chance to torment Nazarov on the wing, allow Manny Ott to drive forward whenever he pleases – the options are aplenty.

The fact of the matter is this could very much be the end of the road for Ceres in their AFC Cup quest.

But, if it is to really be, you can be certain they would want to go out with a bang.

FC Istiklol: All Ceres Negros need to know

Philippine outfit Ceres Negros’ bid for AFC Cup glory resumes on Tuesday evening when they take on Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol in the first leg of their inter-zone semi-final.

Risto Vidakovic’s charges head to Dushanbe on a high after defeating Home United over two legs in the zonal finals earlier this month, becoming the tournament’s first-ever ASEAN champions in the process.

Ceres are now just two ties away from reaching the AFC Cup final, where they will face one of two West Asian giants with Iraq’s Al Wahda and Syrian club Al Quwa Al Jawiya set to face off in their own zonal final next month.

First, the Busmen have the task of seeing off Tajikistan double champions Istiklol, who emerged as the top team from Central Asia.

For those unfamiliar with Tajik football’s newest giants, FOX Sports Asia brings to you the lowdown on them ahead of Tuesday’s first leg at the Pamir Stadium.

History

Founded as recently as November of 2007, Istiklol made an instant impact as they won promotion from the second tier in their inaugural campaign.

While most newly-promoted, fledgling clubs may have struggled for survival, it has been quite the opposite for them.

In their eight seasons as a top-flight team, Istiklol have been crowned Tajik League champions on five occasions, while picking up six Tajik Cups along the way.

They have usurped Regar-TadAZ as the dominant force in the country and it seems only a matter of time before they better their rivals’ current record of seven league titles.

AFC Cup pedigree

Istiklol are no strangers to continental competition, having initially made their AFC debut in the now-defunct President’s Cup, which they won in 2012 after beating Syria’s Markaz Shabab Al Am’ari in the final.

Their first taste of the AFC Cup then arrived in 2015 and they performed remarkably well to finish top of their group and reach the semi-finals.

It was in the last four where they found themselves trailing 4-0 to Kuwait SC after the first leg but, due to a FIFA suspension being imposed on the Kuwait Football Association, Istiklol were awarded a place in the final.

Despite being in the ascendancy for much of that match, the Tajiks were just incapable of capitalising on their dominance, allowing Johor Darul Ta’zim to claim a snatch-and-grab 1-0 triumph.

There was no such joy for them last term as they finished bottom of their group with just one point from six games, although they have already gone some way in making amends in 2017.

How they got this far

The new format of the AFC Cup this year meant that Istiklol has had a relatively more straightforward route to get this far than their upcoming opponents.

With only four Central Asian teams participating in the main draw, they only had to finish top of Group D to advance.

They did face stern resistance from Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr, with the two clubs facing off against one another on the final match day both tied on 13 points.

A 0-0 draw would have been enough to see Istiklol scrape through due to a superior head-to-head record, which would have been only courtesy of an away goal scored in their earlier encounter.

But, in the second minute of injury-time, Dilshod Vasiev netted the only goal of the game to make sure of his side’s progress to the inter-zone semi-finals.

Foreign contingent

It is often said that the key to any good team is a strong spine and Istiklol coach Mukhsin Mukhamadiev certainly seems to agree with his choice of foreigners.

It starts right at the back with Serbian goalkeeper Nikola Stosic, who has Artem Baranovskyi – formerly with Ukrainian Premier League outfit Metalurh Donestk – amongst his protectors.

Adding plenty of bite and drive in the middle of the park is Ghanaian midfielder David Mawutor, while, up front, Russian Dmitry Barkov is the team’s chief creative influence in the attacking third.

Key players

While Istiklol’s overseas contingent do play vital roles for this side, this is one team that is not solely dependent on their imported players.

Mukhamadiev has at his disposal more than ten current Tajikistan internationals, with over 200 caps between the lot.

Vasiev and midfielder Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev are the two most experienced campaigners in the team, although the star name in the side has to be Manuchekhr Dzhalilov.

The 26-year-old racked up five goals in the group stage, including a brilliant hat-trick 4-1 victory away to Alay Osh.

There are many facets to Dzhalilov’s game but his main strength is his predatory finishing and he has already netted seven times for Tajikistan in their ongoing quest to qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

Ceres’ Manny Ott, Iain Ramsay, Junior Munoz, Kevin Ingreso and Luke Woodland will all be familiar with what Dzhalilov is capable of, having played against him in Philippines 4-3 Asian Cup qualifier win over Tajikistan just two months ago.

What they said

Every team that take part in the competition have the target of winning, of course, but I really think that we can win the cup. Of course, we respect Ceres Negros because they have reached the semi-finals and I expect it will be a very interesting match, as it always is at this level. I have only one feeling: I want to win. This is the same for all of my team-mates.”FC Istiklol striker Manuchekhr Dzhalilov on the AFC’s official website

AFC President congratulates AFC Cup Zonal Champions

AFC President Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa has congratulated Philippines’ Ceres Negros for emerging as the inaugural AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Champions after defeating Singapore’s Home United 3-2 on aggregate over two legs after Wednesday’s Zonal Final.

Shaikh Salman said: “On behalf of the AFC football family, I would like to congratulate Ceres Negros for claiming the ASEAN Zonal Champions crown.

“We must also congratulate our first three Zonal Champions – Central Champions FC Istiklol from Tajikistan, JSW Bengaluru FC from India in the South Zone and DPR Korea’s 4.25 SC who won the East Zone.

“With its new format, the second half of the competition promises to captivate our passionate fans once more as we look to crown the West Champions and ultimately, the 2017 AFC Cup winners in November. I wish all our teams the very best of luck.”

The Singapore side had taken a slim advantage heading into the second leg of the 2017 AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Final after claiming a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Risto Vidakovic’s side at home a week ago.

Despite their valiant efforts, it was the Filipino side, however, who displayed their class, overturning the deficit with a 2-0 victory over Home United in the return leg at the Pana-ad Park and Football Stadium in Bacolod City, Philippines on Wednesday.

With the Southeast Asian club crown firmly secured, Ceres Negros will now battle 2015 finalists and Central Zone Champions FC Istiklol from Tajikistan in the Inter-Zone semi-finals on August 22.

Ceres Negros crowned AFC Cup ASEAN champions

Ceres Negros beat Home United 2-0 (3-2 agg) to win the ASEAN Zone Final at the Panaad Park and Stadium in Bacolod on Wednesday.

The visiting Home United arrived in the Philippines off the back of a 2-1 win last week, but a superb display in goal from Ceres stopper Roland Muller kept the visitors scoreless.

The home side enjoyed a dream start to the fixture, scoring in just the second minute. Iain Ramsay would set up Jose Porteria, who powered the ball home into the top right corner, giving Home United stopper Hassan Sunny no chance.

Ceres had a chance to double their lead when Home United defender Abdil Qaiyyim was handled the ball in the penalty area just ten minutes later. However, striker Fernando would send the resulting penalty over the crossbar.

But reward would come for Ceres Negroes from consistent pressure after a free-kick. Midfielder Manuel Ott struck a superb free-kick from 30-yards out, finding the top right corner to double the home side lead in the 42nd minute.

With Home United desperately needing a goal to draw level on aggregate and force extra time, the Singaporeans pressed forward.

But Ceres goalkeeper Roland Muller was equal to the task, making five important saves, including this one from a Stipe Plazibat screamer.

Ceres held on to earn a memorable win as they keep their hopes of a maiden AFC Cup title alive. The Philippine outfit now travel to Dushanbe in Tajikistan to face Istiklol on 22 August.

Home vs Ceres: Key battles

Singapore’s Home United take on Ceres Negros of the Philippines on Wednesday evening in the second leg of the AFC Cup zonal final.

The match will take place at a packed Panaad Park and Stadium in Bacolod City with Home looking to hold onto the 2-1 advantage they earned in Singapore last week.

With a noisy crowd behind them Ceres will be giving it all they’ve got in what is expected to be a keenly fought contest.

FOX Sports Asia takes a look at some of the key players for both sides and how their individual battles could play out.

Juma’at Jantan vs Iain Ramsay

Ramsay was one of Ceres’ main threats during the first leg as Home played with a very narrow back four which gave him lots of space to exploit on the left side of midfield. Ramsay managed to get several decent crosses in and was unlucky to be flagged offside when he set up striker Fernando Rodriguez for the second of Ceres’ ‘offside’ goals.
With Ceres expected to be on the attack for much of the second leg, Juma’at may be asked to play a bit wider in Bacolod to counter the very real threat posed by Ramsay, who has the quality to exploit such space and cause the Home defence no end of problems.

Manny Ott vs Izzdin Safiq

With Hariss Harun set to be deployed in central defence in the absence of Irfan Fandi, the responsibility to keep things in check in the middle of the park will fall upon the shoulders of Izzdin. One of his main duties will be to nullify the influence of Ceres’ Manny Ott. The former Bundesliga player is the metronome that makes Ceres tick and Izzdin will be tasked with keeping Ott quiet, stopping his dribbles and preventing him from threading balls through the middle of the park for the strikers.

Stipe Plazibat vs Manuel Herrera (Super)

Plazibat had a quiet game in front of goal in the first leg, missing a great opportunity just before half-time to give Home a 2-0 lead, but he still managed to get on the score sheet after winning a questionable early penalty. The Croat may be known as a goalscorer, but he also has great all round play and does a lot of unselfish running off the ball, while he can also provide a killer pass. The Ceres defence looked a bit ragged at the Jalan Besar Stadium, with Super in particular giving the ball away on several occasions and putting in a nervy display. He will need to be alert and much more assertive both with and without the ball if he is to keep the in-form Plazibat from adding to his eight AFC Cup goals.

Ceres Negros vs Home United: The Lowdown

There is no denying how high the stakes are when Philippine outfit Ceres-Negros take on Singaporean opponents Home United in the second leg of their AFC Cup ASEAN zonal final at the Panaad Park and Stadium on Wednesday.

First and foremost, there is the obvious incentive of laying claim to being the AFC Cup’s inaugural Southeast Asian champions, following the introduction of this year’s new format which divides the competition into geographical zones.

Then, there is also the matter of progress to the Inter-zone playoff semi-finals, where Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol already lie in wait.

Throw in the fact that making such an impact on the continental front would be a huge statement for both Philippines and Singapore football – albeit for vastly differing reasons – and it is clear to see why victory in Bacolod City would be so much more than a win.

Here, FOX Sports Asia provides the lowdown on all you need to know ahead of Wednesday’s final.

The history

The tie remains firmly balanced following last week’s first leg at the Jalan Besar Stadium, which saw the Protectors claim a gritty 2-1 triumph over Ceres.

While both coaches would have identified many areas of improvement for their respective teams, it was still an engaging spectacle for the neutrals.

A debatable penalty award for Home’s opener, two Ceres goals controversially disallowed and an 83rd-minute winner by Hariss Harun – all of which sets the stage for what promises to be a gruelling, feisty return encounter that will have no shortage of tension and desire.

The main men

John Wayne in Nike's. #nikeph

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In Stipe Plazibat and Bienvenido Maranon, Home and Ceres respectively have two of the competition’s most-prolific marksman this season with eight goals apiece.

Both uncharacteristically had quiet outings last Wednesday but, while Plazibat still found a way to make an impact by winning and converting the penalty that opened the scoring, Maranon struggled with a slight calf problem and was hauled off in the second half.

Still, a fully-fit Maranon arguably remains the Busmen’s most-pivotal player, no small feat considering they boast the likes of Stephan Schrock, Manny Ott and Iain Ramsay in their ranks.

The intelligent Spaniard has perfected the art of playing just behind the main striker to regularly make his way into goal-scoring positions, and the absence of Home starlet Irfan Fandi – away on international duty – would come as welcome news to Maranon.

For Home, it is impossible to look past Hariss as the one who will be crucial to their prospects of success.

The 26-year-old knows what it takes to win the AFC Cup, having done so with Johor Darul Ta’zim in 2015, and has fitted in seamlessly since joining Home on loan earlier this year.

His versatility meant that coach Aidil Sharin opted to deploy him as a centre-back in the first leg, although it was after being shifted back into the engine room that he grabbed that all-important winner.

The middle of the park is where Hariss does his best work and Aidil has a tough decision to make in deciding where to deploy the inspirational Singapore international, especially with Irfan already missing at the back.

The key battle

See you all tomorrow at the stadium. #ceresfootball #DoOrDie #OurTurn

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With German Bundesliga and Europa League experience under his belt, Ceres forward Schrock is currently one of the most highly-credentialed players displaying his wares in the AFC Cup.

Like Maranon, the 30-year-old had a quiet outing last time around and will be hoping to bounce back in front of what should be a vociferous home crowd.

Should Ceres coach Risto Vidakovic opt for the same setup as he did a week ago, it would see Schrock once again deployed on the right wing, directly opposed to Home’s Sirina Camara.

On paper, it appears a savvy move given Camara’s attacking prowess means he usually spends as much time bombing forward as he does defending, which could leave gaps that a player of Schrock’s calibre could comfortably exploit.
However, it also means that Schrock would have his fair share of defensive duties and any dereliction on his part could spell trouble for the hosts.

The repercussions

With meagre turnouts at domestic matches and a declining FIFA world ranking, Singapore football has been crying out for a shot in the arm.

While Home’s success in the AFC Cup is by no means a solution to anything, it would go some way in providing much-needed cheer and prove that is it not all doom and gloom for Singapore, who less than five years ago created history by becoming the first team to win the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship four times.

On the other hand, Philippine football is at the other end of the spectrum – a growing force that has taken massive strides in recent times, looking to deliver more proof of their burgeoning ambition.

Philippines’ professional football competition, the Philippines Football League, may currently be in its debut campaign but its clubs are no strangers to competing in AFC tournaments.

Should Ceres be crowned Southeast Asia’s best in the AFC Cup, ahead of clubs from more-established nations like Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar, it would further enhance how bright the future is for Philippine football.

What they said:

Home United coach Aidil Sharin:

“It’s only the first half of the game, and we have to finish up the second half. It’s not over yet.”

“I respect the opponent. They are a very good team, a strong team. I need 11 fighters in this match to get the result as Ceres are very good at home.”

Ceres-Negros coach Risto Vidakovic:

“I think it’s the most important game in Philippine club history.”

“I think that my players will give everything tomorrow (Wednesday). They will fight for ninety minutes and that’s the only thing I can promise.”