UP gains finals; mad scramble for 2nd

The Maroons are now through to the football finals. (Photo by Sid Ventura)

University of the Philippines bucked the absence of ace striker Jinggoy Valmayor to stretch its second-round winning streak to four games with a clinical 2-nil win over first-round leader University of Sto. Tomas earlier today at the Ateneo High School pitch.

Ghanaian Nii Aryee Ayi scored both goals that clinched a finals berth and twice-to-beat advantage for the defending champion Maroons, who have now won four straight games after four straight draws in the first round.

Ayi first struck in the 14th minute with a one-touch from the middle of the penalty box that just caught the inside of the post and bounced in. He doubled the lead in the 49th with a vicious, rocket-like volley from near the edge of the box that found the back of the net, giving him his fourth goal of the tournament.

With 19 points on a 5-4-0 win-draw-loss record and only one game left to play, UP is safely ahead of its closest pursuer UST, which got stuck at 15 points. The Maroons thus clinched the first finals slot and the all-important twice-to-beat advantage as they gun for their second straight crown and third in the last four years. The Tigers, who played without suspended central back Ronald Batisla-ong, couldn't get anything going the whole game and now face a virtual knockout game against Far Eastern University on Sunday for the second finals slot.

Down to 10 men, the Tamaraws pulled off a come-from-behind 2-1 win over also-ran Ateneo to move up to 14 points and keep their finals aspirations alive. Fourth-running La Salle kept its own slim finals hopes alive with a tight 1-nil win over University of the East. Al Bustamante scored from a cross in the 83rd minute as the Green Archers moved up to 13 points.

All of these set up an explosive final elimination-round playdate on Sunday, with UST, FEU and DLSU still in the mix for the second finals slot. According to tournament rules, two teams tied for second will figure in a one-game playoff, which is to DLSU's advantage since UST holds a huge five-goal lead in goal differential. This means that La Salle need only beat Ateneo even by just one goal and hope that UST and FEU play to a draw regardless of the scoreline. Meanwhile, with a 4-2-3 win-draw-loss record and 14 points, FEU needs to beat UST to make it to back to the finals for the first time in two years. To avoid all complications, UST (4-3-2-15) must go for the win and seal a repeat of last year's finals.

To summarize:

If UST wins, UST vs. UP in finals regardless of what happens in the DLSU-Ateneo match.

If FEU wins, FEU vs. UP in finals regardless of what happens in the DLSU-Ateneo match.

If UST and FEU draw and DLSU wins, one-game playoff between UST and DLSU for the second finals slot.

If UST and FEU draw and DLSU either draws with or loses to Ateneo, UST vs. UP in finals.

UP battles UE in a no-bearing game in the opener. The Maroons will be without Ayi, who collected his second yellow card to draw an automatic suspension. Although they have already clinched the top seed and twice-to-beat advantage, it will be interesting to see if the defending champs will still go all-out to preserve both their unbeaten streak, which dates back to last season when they won 10 games and drew once, and their season-long run of not conceding a single goal yet.

E-mail: Twitter: @Sid_Ventura.