Who said weekends were for rest?

Who said weekends were for rest? Not if you’re a football player and a football supporter. I managed to catch three games this weekend (well, it doesn’t even feel like Sunday has already started), so let’s start breaking them down.

Loyola Meralco Sparks – Philippine Air Force
It’s the UFL Cup Finals, and I hauled my ass to Rizal Memorial Stadium to see it live. If the action in the quarterfinals and semifinals were an indication, the final match between these two teams proved to be high on entertainment value.

Ian Araneta scored a goal toward the tail end of the first half to give Air Force the lead 1-0, and boy, there were fireworks already at the Stadium (someone’s upped the production value, I suppose?). One thing to note about the Air Force team—their defense was solid. Goalkeeper Tats Mercado played a stellar game and had solid support from his teammates to deny the Sparks (still can’t get over the girliness of the team name—but it’s so appropriate for Phil Younghusband) a goal.

The second half saw early on a corner awarded to the Sparks—and what could have been the equalizing goal had it not been disallowed. Mark Hartmann was asked to retake the corner kick, and the moment his boot hit the ball, there are two realization (albeit the latter in hindsight): 1) the Sparks were not going to get this one in; and 2) from this moment on, the game was Air Force’s to win. To give credit to the Sparks, they probably had more chances on goal in the second half, but were denied for various reasons, including: Tats Mercado’s hands; the help defense of Air Force; and the crossbar.

And then you got the Air Force captain, bending it in like Bersales to seal the match in favor of the Air Force 2-0. There’s only one Yanti Bersales in Philippine football. And from then on, you can see defeat in the Sparks’ body language.

To see the semi-professional local league culminate the year with this much festivities is quite extraordinary (but I reckon a separate entry is needed for that).

As for me, I crossed the pitch in a state of semi-darkness—stadium lights mostly shut off (because the Meralco team lost, haha), a damp pitch (it was raining early on), and underneath some awesome fireworks.

I thought to myself, this would have been perfect if someone like Xabi Alonso were next to me. (Yeah, I can dream.)

Liverpool – Queens Park Rangers
Let me point out the outrage. ESPN/Star listed Liverpool-QPR on its programme schedules, only to air Manchester United-Wolverhampton Wanderers on TV. Two words: high treason.

In any case, the highlight of the match was Luis Suarez, who made the breakthrough against QPR goalkeeper Radek Cerny early in the second half. Despite the charges files against him before the FA, Suarez continues to put on superb performances for the Red Men. (And really, he can only be more explosive.) This man has the potential to be a Liverpool legend—we can only hope he won’t be lured by the big money anywhere else.

Here’s a video reel of the highlight from Empire of the Kop—essentially, Luis Suarez.

Real Madrid – Barcelona
Ah, El Clasico. Nobody escapes without experiencing a couple of heart attacks. Real Madrid were heavily favored coming into this game—a ten-match winning streak and top of the tables in La Liga, which was stamped by the earlier goal in El Clasico history: a Karim Benzema goal 23 seconds into a match.

The Men in White pressed for the first third of the match, until Marcelo deflected Xavi’s attempt to turn it 1-1 before the halftime. Interestingly enough, we’ve got a couple of monkey wrenches on Real Madrid’s starting XI: Lassana Diarra starting and Fabio Coentrao playing right back.

Credit Barcelona for making tactical changes, which Real Madrid were not quite able to adapt to. Cesc Fabregas dropped back from being the front line of attack, while Alexis (who now holds the Drama Queen title in this Barcelona squad) is not just attacking from the left, but making runs on both sides. Sergio Busquets dropped to the back four, while Dani Alves (barf) is given a more attacking role. And where did that leave Messi? Let’s just say nobody wearing white was able to contain him to tonight—I miss Ricardo Carvalho.

Sure, Karim Benzema scored the opening goal, but there was little impact from the rest of Real Madrid’s attackers. Di Maria obviously was working hard, but could not finish, Ozil—well, I thought he eventually faded, and as for Cristiano, he was invisible tonight. There was hardly an attack on the left wing in the first half—and his second half performance is pretty much reminiscent to what I feel and see when Phil Younghusband is playing for the Philippine National Team. Frustrating all around.

Even more frustrating? Real Madrid’s defense. Of the back four, I’d rate Fabio Coentrao’s performance the highest, despite being played out-of-position. Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, and Pepe—que pasa??? Kaka came on for Ozil (and had a good few touches), Sami Khedira came on for Lass, and Pipita came on for Di Maria (still think he should have come on for Cristiano instead). Uninspiring substitutions—and I feel especially bad for Pipita, who should have a happier birthday. Barcelona had two unanswered goals in the second half, making the final scoreline 3-1.

That said, there should be a long post-mortem between Mourinho and his cold-blooded enforcers. On the bright side, the outcome of this match doesn’t decide La Liga. As for me, all I want is togive Xabi Alonso a tight hug after the match—he looked so defeated. And Iker—oh boy, oh boy, I wouldn’t want to face his wrath.

But wait, Kaka was a bit of an inspiration tonight:

En los buenas y malas, Hala Madrid!

ETA: You all know that Don Andres Iniesta is quite the legend, right? Well, here’s one more feather to add to his cap. (Sure gives Beckham a run for his money over the Golden Balls title. Haha.)

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Notes from a commentators’ booth extra.

I have a confession to make: I don’t watch a lot of local league games as I ought to.

Blame it on still trying to have a semblance of balance in my life or just the fact that I have too many things on my plate and would rather watch reruns of the overly vapid Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but I just haven’t been able to do so. It’s as if it’s not enough that I wake up at ungodly hours to catch matches in Europe, but that I have to spend afternoons and evenings watching even more football too. It’s not that I am complaining—it’s just that I have other (trivial, seemingly) matters to attend to.

Upon the insistence invitation of Ryan, I trooped to the University of Makati yesterday evening to watch the quarterfinals match between the Loyola Meralco Sparks (I swear to the high heavens, the name still reminds me of a women’s basketball team) and Stallion FC. And boy oh boy, that was one hell of an introduction to live UFL action.

I suppose it is fair to say that the match began with both teams pretty even, with lots of running, attacking, and counter-attacking. Naturally, there’s always that one point in most matches when the momentum swings the way of one team. That, I thought, was during the first Phil Younghusband goal early into the game, off a defensive error by Stallion FC. And really, that threw the Ilonggos off their game.

To make the match even more interesting, I was treated to a flurry of fouls and cards. After one Stallion FC player got sent off (I apologize, I should know who they are), Mr. Younghusband scored another goal, pretty much adding insult to injury.

Gotta hand it to the Ilonggos though—they did eventually go down 2-1, but they sure went down fighting. I do remember they had more shots on goal—quite a feat especially having been down to nine men.

That said, while the match was high on entertainment value, you can’t say the same for everything else. The officiating was terrible—there were instances when cards should have been shown but weren’t, and jeez, even the medical team entered the pitch while the ball was in play. I’d say it would have benefited everybody if the referees had a better handle on the game.

It’s also quite refreshing to see such rabid fans for both sides, especially for the Ilonggos—it’s the closest I’ve seen to Pinoy football hooliganism.

Something tells me I’m going to be watching more local league matches pretty soon.

***

But really, if you ask me, the highlight of my evening was meeting the one and only Chris Greatwich. Of course, I’m playing it cool with the guys at the commentators’ box, but internally, I was spazzing, “Holy fuck, it’s Chris Greatwich!”

I’ll be pretty candid in saying that when I started paying attention to the Philippine NT, it’s Chris Greatwich that first comes to mind. He’s the guy that scored the equalizer against Singapore and the first goal when the Philippines defeated Vietnam, 2-0.

And in one moment of incredible vanity, here’s a snapshot. Yeah, I look too happy, it’s so ridiculous.