Six teams battle it out in a tournament that lasts barely a month all for a trophy and, more importantly, a ticket to an Asian footballing odyssey. Come September first, The Copa Paulino Alcantara begins and will serve as the make-or-break path for Philippines’ professional football clubs to get their hands on a silverware, join Ceres-Negros as domestic title holders, and at the same time, serve as the country’s representatives for the 2019 AFC Cup.
With the ruthless and unforgiving nature of a cup tournament that provides an ever-present probability of pulling off surprises and upsets, FOX Sports provides the lowdown on how each of the six competitors stand heading into the competition named after the Philippines’ best-ever football player in history, Paulino Alcantara.
Half a dozen stories, one objective: Here are the six contenders in the country’s first Copa Paulino Alcantara:
Ceres-Negros (PFL Standing: Champions)
The Bacolod-based Busmen (as they are fondly known), have been a dominant force in the recently concluded 2018 Philippines Football League season. With their second straight title, they could use the Copa Paulino Alcantara as a platform to further cement that superiority in the domestic front with a bid to achieve a first-ever “double” in the PFL-era.
However, achieving such a feat could be a bit more remote (if Coach Risto Vidakovic’s words would prove true) given that they will not put full priority to the tournament as they have already met their main objectives to the season and their focus now lies more on the recovery of players and the preparation for next year’s arduous journey both in the local and continental campaigns.
Despite the tempered motivation heading into the cup, the current league champions are still a force to be reckoned with given their deep lineup and highly-rated new acquisitions who are eager to make further impressions to the coaching and management staff. Add to that the highly technical style of football that Coach Risto has already instilled as a culture for the club, a rotating lineup by The Busmen can still be a threat to the other clubs that are aspiring to lay their hands on the last trophy that is up for grabs this year.
If the breaks of the game would come their way, the Philippines’ La Máquina* could could prove to be enough to power Bacolod’s bus up to speed towards another groundbreaking achievement.
Davao Aguilas (PFL Standing: 3rd Place Finishers)
As the sole club from the Mindanao region, Davao Aguilas can consider their PFL season as a mixed bag of sorts, but definitely something that they would always look back at with a slight feeling of “what might have been” due to a series of inconsistent performances, especially in the first half of the season where they racked up a four-game losing streak spanning mid-May until early June.
A series of acquisitions in key positions during the recent transfer window signalled the club’s intent of finishing strong and not throwing the towel, but the mission had been a very tall order for the newly bolstered squad that, despite achieving a six-game unbeaten run in the business-end of the season, half of the results were draws that could only land them in third place of the standings that was even in danger of being overtaken by Stallion Laguna near the conclusion of the campaign.
Now that the league is done and dusted and the Copa Paulino Alcantara is about to begin, the Aguilas would use this inaugural cup as a clean slate to aim higher for a much superior run of results compared to their past league campaign and with a view of directly qualifying for the AFC Cup which is the main reason for all the ownership’s intent of injecting the necessary funds and investments for the squad.
Although it is to note that the squad already has an outside chance of joining next year’s AFC Cup, provided that Kaya Iloilo are the ones who win the cup and Ceres-Negros qualify for the AFC Champions League, the club will definitely not give anything up to chance. At the same time, they will not take anything for granted in this next campaign as they try their best to ensure they get the best possible result from the tournament.
Davao Aguilas now have the right ingredients to be a solid contender, and with the wealth of talent in virtually almost all positions, anything less than reaching the cup semis could now be considered a disappointment.
With one of the most loyal core of fans in the PFL, Coach Melchor Anzures’ wards will definitely try to pull out all the stops to bring out a performance that would hopefully bring joy to their expectant supporters with the hopes of bringing Davao not just towards domestic cup glory but also putting the city of Mindanao on the Asian football map.
Stallion Laguna (PFL Standing: 4th Place Finishers)
The club based a few kilometres south of the metro, Stallion Laguna have been, for the past two PFL seasons, mid-season bloomers. They stutter in the first half of the season then mount a monumental run in the end, finding themselves finish at mid-table.
Heading into the Alcantara Cup, Coach Ernest Nierras’ squad should maintain the level of play they were able to show for them to be able to get out of their group which is considered as the “Group of Death”. But with their speedy attackers that can pack a punch up front, Stallion Laguna are definitely a threatening side, especially on the counterattack and their recent showings of positive and direct football.
But with all of the positivity they possess and the possibilities they could bring to the table in this impending campaign, one glaring weakness in their recently concluded 2018 PFL season stood out: Ceres Negros. The Visayan squad and back-to-back champions served as their kryptonite as it was the only club that they faced in which they failed to acquire any points in the standings. In all the five meetings Stallion had against Ceres, every clash ended in favour of The Busmen and that hurt Stallion as they came up narrowly short of finishing at the upper half of the table.
The Copa Paulino Alcantara could serve as their chance to finally break their duck against Ceres and a great opportunity to shatter that possible mental barrier. And if Stallion manage to survive their group, they might just pull off a surprise run all the way to the final since the Binan-based outfit’s attributes as a team has a possibility of thriving in a knockout environment.
Kaya FC Iloilo (PFL Standing: Runners-up)
Previously based in Makati, before being recently re-planted in Iloilo City where football has a good traction in terms of following, Kaya Iloilo have been a fortress, only losing once in their new home en-route to finishing as league runners-up.
But with the Copa Paulino Alcantara group stages set to be held in Manila, the advantage of a home game could be a factor that they might sorely miss. However, the management and coaching tandem of Chris Greatwich and Noel Marcaida should already have addressed this as they have enough ammunition in their roster to mount a serious challenge in winning the competition in their aim of ensuring their participation in an AFC-level tournament, the AFC Cup.
Kaya have all the reason to take the cup campaign with an even more fervour and drive because in spite of ending up as second best in the league, Kaya FC’s participation in the continental stage is still not yet 100 percent assured and will depend on rivals Ceres-Negros’ performance in the AFC Champions league qualifiers. Hence to put all doubts to rest, they need nothing less but getting a hold of the trophy.
Kaya Iloilo have the necessary talents to go all the way with enough firepower headed by 2018 league top-scorer Robert Lopez Mendy and equally lethal partner in crime Jovin Bedic. Add to the frontline a well-balanced midfield and reliable defence to boot, and Kaya could get a silverware and put themselves back to competing in the Asian front after a two-year hiatus. If that happens, then it will be something that football fans in Iloilo City can look forward to – The possibility of seeing their team play in front of them in an international club competition.
JPV Marikina (PFL Standing: 5th Place Finishers)
The 2018 season of JPV can be considered a disappointing one given the departure of their main striker Takumi Uesato to Ceres-Negros before the season started somehow affected their finishing up front. Although players delivered and stood up to fill the void even if they’re not naturally an out-and-out striker. Forwards like J Baguioro, John Celiz and Allen Angeles chipped in to fill the gap especially when at times Ryuki Kozawa encountered fitness issues that prompted the forward to miss games while attacking midfielder and playmaker Keigo Moriyasu had been stellar from an individual standpoint, turning out to be the team’s top-scorer coming from the middle of the pitch.
But despite those adjustments, Coach Dan Padernal’s men weren’t able to achieve the consistency to churn out the desired results. Also, it seemed JPV just can’t get the breaks even off the pitch as they only were able to play once in their home stadium due to varying reasons regarding Marikina Sports Center’s pitch-state and availability. The negation of such a probable advantage by playing in front of their home supporters could have also factored in towards a forgettable season.
But now, with the domestic cup set to begin, a new window to glory should open a ray of hope for the Marikina-based squad in their bid to come up with a silverware and a chance to play in the AFC Cup next year, add to the fact that Uesato is back with the club after his stint with Ceres did not pan out as expected. His return is a boost, now that JPV has a pure striker in their ranks, as the other attacking players will be able to focus more on their natural roles.
Finally, with the element of surprise that is ever present with the nature of a cup competition, JPV could hold onto that aspect of the game as they pull off an unexpected but probable run to winning their first silverware.
Global Cebu (PFL Standing: 6th Place Finishers)
The unexpected surprise of the 2018 season due to a series of unfortunate off-the-pitch challenges, Global Cebu just had their worst showing in their mostly very competitive and relatively successful existence as one of the most prominent clubs in Philippine football.
A botched transfer of ownership that led to a serious financial crisis and an exodus of most of their original core of starters, the club only managed one win the whole season with a hurtful run of 22 losses (a few even by default due to the inability of the squad for inter-island transportation for away matches), Global Cebu were in deep trouble off the playing field that it showed in the performances on it. It even was notable to mention that Global were not able to play in the city they represent, even for one match in Cebu City Sports Complex.
But now, seeming to get a second wind in slowly getting back to their financial bearings off the initiative of Mark Jarvis to take ownership of the beleaguered squad, and with some promising developments to acquire additional backings (even though it’s still far from the ideal state), a renewed hope seemed to have been found by the club heading into the Copa Paulino Alcantara. Their rebuilding phase has been bolstered with quality signings and a new head coach, Dragutin Stevic-Rankovic, with the aim of getting back into being a competitive club and the hope of pulling off a miraculous run.
The Cup, with its format, provides an opportunity for giant-killings. And for the first time in Global’s history, they are heading into the competition (quite unfathomably in recent past) as underdogs. Who knows, they might be able to channel the spirit of the glorious Global FC of old and slay the Goliaths blocking their way to their journey back to the perch that was once theirs.
A favourable group, with Kaya FC and JPV Marikina, is already an unexpected boon to encourage the club. Now it’s their turn to put on the hard work and take a hold of their destiny as a team to survive and reach the knockout phase.
The Stage is set
There is always that uncertainty factor in dedicated cup competitions that make them compelling to watch; with the grinding schedule and the very low margin of error afforded to squads with its mini-league and knockout format. Also cup tournaments are cruel to the vanquished, while an almost perfect means to witnessing some massive results that go the underdogs’ way.
With the Copa Paulino Alcantara kicking off this first of September, all six clubs are given an opportunity once again to work their way to reach their dreams of winning a silverware and a shot at the international club level of competing. But with the window of hope comes the cruelty for a misstep. All clubs cannot afford an “off-night”, as such would be costly and may mean a farewell from contention and another empty-handed year (save for the PFL champions of course).
It’s going to be a battle of clubs in their “A-games”. In about a month the Philippines will see its second champion team in club football.
Let’s get it on.
The Copa Paulino Alcantara begins on September 1, 2018. All matches in the group phase will be played either at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium or at the PFF Training Center in San Lazaro Leisure Park in Carmona, Cavite.
*La Máquina – A term coined to the legendary River Plate squad in Argentina during the 1940’s that caught the imagination of football fans and historians alike due to the highly technical and aesthetic nature of football they exhibited. Such approach was considered trailblazing in its time. They played with that certain philosophy holding onto it with such faith, treating it as paramount; a stark contrast to the pragmatic mindset of playing the game solely to get a result – no matter what the cost.
Photo credit: Philippines Football League Website