By JONAS TERRADO
MANILA, Philippines — Behind a gritty effort, Air Force Phoenix regained the United Football League Cup crown Sunday with a 2-0 victory over fancied Loyola Meralco last night in front of 6,000 fans at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Azkals striker Ian Araneta set the tone for the Airmen with a 39th minute goal then former National team member Edmundo Mercado Jr. displayed superb goalkeeping skills to secure their second title since the league was launched in 2009.
The victory was also aided by a 20-yard strike by ageless wonder Yanti Barsales in the 90th minute as Air Force rebounded from last year's title loss to Global FC.
This win, seen live on AKTV on IBC 13, by a group of Air Force reservists and former and current National team mainstays will perhaps go down in history as one of the most memorable title matches in the history of club football.
Araneta, who finished the tournament with 19 goals, scored after teammate Chieffy Caligdong set it up with a cross. Randy Bela-ong attempted a short pass that was partly deflected before the Ilonggo booted it to the right part of the net.
Air Force led 1-0 at the half but appeared to have lost the lead in the 52nd minute when James Younghusband scored a header off a corner kick by Mark Hartmann.
However, game officials nullified the equalizer, ruling that Hartmann improperly placed the ball before the corner kick.
The Sparks, who suffered their first-and-only loss of the Cup tourney on this night, had numerous chances to score in the latter part of the match but Mercado, nearing his mid-30s, made timely saves while receiving some support from the Airmen backline.
Air Force, which will seek to retain its league title starting January, also got some help from Lady Luck in the 82nd and 83rd minutes when Meralco's Alexandro Elnar attempted to score twice. But both shots hit under the crossbar to the delight of a festive Airmen supporters.
Earlier, Global FC leaned on Izzo El-Habbib's go-ahead goal in the 75th minute in beating Kaya Cignal FC, 2-1, to finish third.