BACOLOD CITY – Buoyed by a magical atmosphere at the Panaad Park and Stadium, Ceres Negros FC became the first Philippine team to make the AFC Cup Asean Zonal Finals after outlasting powerhouse Johor Darul Ta’zim, 2-1 on Wednesday night.
Fernando Rodriguez converted the winning penalty in the 94th minute after being taken down by Aidil Zafwan in the previous set piece to propel the Busmen to a showdown with Singapore’s Home United in the regional finals.
The goal tied the aggregate score at 4-4, allowing Ceres to move through to the finals by virtue of away goals after taking two at the Larkin Stadium two weeks ago.
To make matters worse, JDT goalkeeper Farzial Marlias went ballistic immediately after a penalty, throwing fits on the pitch as he was booed off the field by a rowdy Panaad crowd.
“I have all confidence to score. I was just thinking about my family the whole time,” said Rodriguez, who sent the ball down the middle, keeping Farzial off balance the whole time.
“Usually the goalkeeper chooses one side, I chose the middle and I scored,” he added.
The regional finals between Ceres and Home United will be played in August with the exact date yet to be determined.
After a tense start for both sides, things finally started to open up for the Busmen when Kevin Ingreso sent a lovely ball from the free-kick into defender Kota Kawase who scored a tap-in in the 26th minute.
The entry of Hazwan Bin Bakri in the second half changed the complexion for the Southern Tigers, with the attack-minded midfielder creating all sorts of problems for the Ceres backline.
His persistence then paid off when he located a leaking Gabriel Guerra in the 65th minute to score off a tight angle, tying the game at one apiece and giving control back to Johor.
The game slowed down in the ensuing minutes, with Ceres’ lone chance in that span being sent high off the bar as OJ Porteria missed his chance to give his team back ahead with the goalkeeper at his mercy.
Thankfully for Negros, there was one more room for drama in the match as Chinese referee Fu Ming gave the hosts a penalty, much to the delight of the crowd.
“It’s not easy to control emotions, especially if you need to win,” said Ceres head coach Risto Vidakovic. “We played a very good first half. In the second half we didn’t play so well. But I think after 180 minutes, I think we deserve it, to qualify to the finals.”
It was a disappointing night for the 2015 AFC Cup winners who entered the two-leg semifinals as a clear favorite over the Philippine side.
Despite protests and the late meltdown of Farzial, JDT head coach Benjamin Mora took the loss in stride, although he admitted that he was hurt with the result.
“I think we fought today. I think it was a good game for both. Very sad cause I wanted a victory. This kind of games, when you lose for any reason, it hurts a lot cause we’re almost there,” said Mora.
He refused to comment on the late penalty.
“It was a penalty, because the referee thinks it was a penalty. That’s the only thing I think.”