By Cedelf P. Tupas
MANILA, Philippines — Air Force Phoenix looks to extend its reign against a Loyola Meralco side seeking to establish itself as a force in the United Football League.
Unbeaten in their run to the finals, the Airmen and Sparks collide for the UFL Cup at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila.
Global and Kaya-Cignal meet in the battle for third place—the first of two matches that will be aired live by AKTV on IBC 13.
The Airmen are in familiar territory, having won the league early this year after finishing second in the Cup competition to Global FC.
Air Force has actually won two of the three titles dangled in the UFL since the league started in 2009.
Aside from winning the Cup, the Airmen are looking to once again prove that their squad built around homegrown talents has what it takes to fend off all challengers, especially those with foreign reinforcements.
“We take a lot of pride on having a team with homegrown players,” said Air Force coach Edzel Bracamonte, whose squad boasts of national team standouts Chieffy Caligdong and Ian Araneta and veteran striker Yanti Barsales.
It will be the first finals appearance for the Sparks, who made the biggest off-season move in the UFL by acquiring brothers Phil and James Younghusband.
With the Younghusband brothers, who spent time with English Premiere League side Chelsea, spearheading their campaign, Loyola has taken the Cup competition by storm.
The Sparks have scored 48 goals and has conceded just seven in six games with Phil Younghusband accounting for 25 goals.
Although they were hardly tested in the group stages, the Sparks showed they are equal to the challenge when their backs are against the wall.
Staring at a 0-3 halftime deficit against Kaya Cignal in the semifinals, the Sparks
completed an improbable 5-4 comeback win with Phil firing a hattrick.
The Sparks will welcome back goalkeeper Ref Cuaresma to the side, but skipper Patrick Ozaeta and Italian midfielder Davide Cortina are ineligible for the finals after picking up consecutive yellow cards in the quarterfinals and the semifinals.
More than the threat posed by Caligdong, Araneta and Barsales, the Sparks will also need to deal with 43-year-old midfielder Jezurel Tonog, whose string of solid performances has also keyed Air Force’s run.
“We have very good individual players but the key for us is to play as a team,” said Bracamonte.