Loyola Meralco Sparks face stiff test against Myanmar side

Phil Younghusband and midfielder Anto Gonzales will spur the Spark's attack.

The Sparks may have disappointed in the UFL league, but there is still a chance for silverware when they meet Myanmar's Kanbawza in the quarterfinals of the Singapore Cup.

The Philippine side was one of five foreign clubs invited to contest for the trophy. With the Sparks meeting Kanbawza, one is sure to progress to the semifinals.  Loyola defeated Geylang United 2-1 in extra time last May in the first round.

Quarterfinals in the Singapore Cup are two-legged, aggregate goals affairs. The second game will be on Sunday, July 8, at Singapore's Jalan Besar stadium.  Since there is no away-goals rule, the teams will go to extra time then penalties if still tied after 210 minutes.

The Sparks will be bristling with offensive weapons. Aside from the Younghusband brothers, Mark Hartmann, who scored a terrific volleyed goal against Geylang, will also suit up. Dumaguete-born players Alexandro Elnar, Jake Morallo and Jayson Cutamora will also be available. The Singapore Cup, like many competitions in the region, only allow four foreigners on the pitch at the same time per team.

The club flew into Singapore yesterday via sponsor Cebu Pacific. As of press time there is still no word on whether the match will be telecast live or on a delayed telecast by AKTV. Kick off is at 7:45 p.m.

Meralco was plagued with cramps in their match last May. The team is doing its all to ensure it won't happen again.

"For this two-game series, we asked the players to do a lot of stretching and jogging. We also pushed them more with their conditioning and their nutrition." said physiotherapist Mike Yamamoto. "Even here at our hotel, we advised the kitchen not so serve oily foods. We are giving them all the vitamins they need and are also working on their hydration."  The club is sponsored by sports drink Gatorade.

Midfield lynchpin Anto Gonzales is primed for the match. "It's a different challenge for Loyola in this Singapore Cup because we are representing our country. We want to show our Southeast Asian neighbors that apart from our national team's improvement, the clubs are not far behind. We really want to make our countrymen proud. As for Loyola per se, it's a different motivation because we want to make up for our not winning the UFL."

James Younghusband is also up for a scrap. "We're underdogs here no doubt. And that means less pressure on us. But we will be ready to play our best because this is new territory we're charting here. It is always good to get opportunities."

The venue will also be a challenge for the team in orange. Ref Cuaresma, Loyola's keeper, told me the other day the the stadium feels closed-in and humid. Jalan Besar has a FIFA-certified artificial turf but it's reportedly very  hard and bumpy. The netminder, also from Dumaguete, played in the Geylang match and said "it's what Turf BGC will be ten years from now."

Kanbawza will be a tough opponent.  The club has appeared in the Asian Football Confederation President's Cup twice. Brazilian Tercio Nunes patrols their midfield and scored in their first-round win versus Woodlands. Up top the Myanmar team features Nigerian Ikechukwu Obi, a big, strong striker.  His partner is Min Oo Soe.

The Philippines and Myanmar have had some memorable matches over the years, and now the rivalry has spilled over to the club level. In the 2004 Tiger Cup an injury-time Myanmar strike prevented what would have been an historic 0-0 draw for the Philippines. In 2007 the Azkals gained a measure of revenge by playing the role of the spoiler. In the last group game a heavily-favored Myanmar side was unable to beat the Philippines, thus getting eliminated after a goalless draw.

In the 2010 Suzuki Cup it was Myanmar's turn to foil a Philippine attempt to proceed to the knockout stage in the last group game. But another 0-0 score meant the Azkals made it to the semis.

In their last meeting last year in Yangon for the AFC Challenge Cup, the Philippines seemed headed for a first ever win in the fixture when the Myanmar keeper knocked  Yanti Barsales out cold with a flying kick.  He was thrown out, and in the ensuing penalty Phil Younghusband's made it 1-0. But a shorthanded Myanmar fought back and snatched a dramatic 93rd minute equalizer off a free kick from captain Khin Maung Lwin.

Naturally, Khin Maung Lwin plays for Kanbawza and will likely start against Loyola.

Lets hope for fireworks once again between these two nations.

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.