Sidelined by a knee injury the past 14 months, Carlie De Murga heralded his return by scoring 2 goals to propel Ceres La Salle past 10-man Loyola Meralco, 2-1, in Group B of the UFL Cup before a lively Sunday night crowd at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
In the matchup capping an explosive opening weekend, it was the former Azkal who shone the brightest as his injury time header off a corner from Orman Okuinaya lifted the Bacolod side.
Sparks substitute Jinggoy Valmayor’s 65th minute goal cancelled out De Murga’s 1st-half strike as the 2 powerhouse sides looked set for a stalemate until De Murga’s heroics.
“I feel great after a long time out of the field, exactly 458 days,” said De Murga, who sustained a serious knee injury in the FA League Cup final against Global last Nov. 6, 2014. “Imagine how I feel right now. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
In other matches, Stallion leaned on a Jordan Mintah strike in the first half to slip past defending champion Kaya, 1-0, while Green Archers shrugged off a sluggish start to whip Nomads, 4-0.
Mintah broke free from the Kaya defense six minutes before halftime as Stallion avenged its semifinal defeat to Kaya last season.
“The important thing is we came out with the win and started the season on a strong note,” Stallions coach Ernie Nierras said. “We really wanted to face Kaya right away, so we didn’t have to worry about them the rest of the group stage.”
Archers poured all 4 goals in the second half against a Nomads side that couldn’t sustain its resolute stand.
New signings Lee Joo Young, Gary Epesso, Hussein Doust and Jimwel Arriola were on target for the Archers who moved to second in Group B behind Global on goal difference.
Ceres, the reigning league champion, unveiled new signings Stephan Schrock and Kevin Ingreso with the German Bundesliga veteran immediately making an impact, testing Tommy Trigo twice early on, including a free kick as early as the 2nd minute.
Loyola missed the trio of Phil Younghusband, Simon Greatwich and Joaco Canas due to injuries, reducing coach Simon McMenemy’s options.
The Sparks absorbed plenty of pressure with Manny Ott also forcing a good save from Trigo, but they also looked particularly dangerous on the counterattack with a Tahj Minniecon and new signing Alvaro Castiella keeping the Ceres backline on its toes.
Ceres took the lead in the 35th minute when De Murga bundled home Adrian Gallardo’s saved penalty. Sparks new signing Jason de Jong handled Bien Maranon’s cross inside the box, leaving referee Clifford Daypuyat with no choice but to point to the spot.
Gallardo beat Trigo in the initial penalty but Daypuyat called for a retake. Trigo got the better of Gallardo, but de Murga was quickest to react for the opening goal. Ott has a golden opportunity to double the advantage at the stroke of halftime, finding himself free inside the area, but he can only sky his effort from 6 yards.
The match took the same pattern with Ceres dominating possession and Loyola looking to break at every opportunity.
Coming in for Minniecon at the hour mark at the same time a hobbling Ceres defender Juani Guirado was replaced by Jason Sabio, Valmayor took just 5 minutes to make his presence felt. He fired a low drive that Ceres keeper Michael Casas couldn’t handle for Loyola’s equalizer.
The goal roused Ceres to action with Trigo needing to be alert to deny Maranon on the other end.
Well drilled and disciplined for most of the match, Loyola lost its defensive anchor in Adam Mitter who was sent off with 3 minutes remaining for denying Patrick Reichelt a clear goalscoring chance with his heavy challenge just outside the area.
Ceres capitalized on its advantage with De Murga capping his memorable night with a match-winning goal and a decisive edge in the tournament’s Group of Death.