DUMAGUETE, NEGROS ORIENTAL- It wasn't pretty, but it was good enough for a deserving back-to-back title.
Negros Occidental, represented by Ceres-La Salle, are once again the nation's finest under-23 team after an attritional 1-0 win over Davao in the final match of the Suzuki Men's National U23 Championship here at the Governor Mariano Perdices Coliseum.
Jinggoy Valmayor calmly slotted home a penalty in the 81st minute for the game's only score.
Negros Occidental dominated the group stage with a 3-0 victory over Masbate, a 5-0 win over Davao, and a 6-0 rout against Dipolog. In the semis they tripped arch rival Iloilo 2-0 to reach the final.
Quality chances were hard to come by in the title match for the favored Negrenses, because their opponents devoted most of their resources to defending. A hard, uneven and extremely dry pitch also made for some scrappy Football on a warm and generally windless afternoon in front of a few hundred fans.
In the first half-hour NOFA (Negros Occidental Football Association) showed their intent with attempts from Ritz Cornel, Jimuel Arriola, and Valmayor that all missed the goal frame.
Arriola had a terrific chance in the 37th minute off a breakaway but the Davao defense caught up with him and blocked his try.
Davao nearly picked up the opener against the run of play when Yoshiharu Koizumi stormed out to get a long vertical ball off a counterattack but NOFA's keeper Benito Rosalia disrupted him on time.
Just before the half Davao's Gelo Diamante launched a very long-range free kick that went straight to Rosalia, who plays his club Football for Navy.
Nine minutes after halftime Ceres almost went ahead when John Bolo headed powerfully off a corner only to see the ball rock the crossbar.
The Davaoenos continued to defend heroically, perhaps in the hopes of sending the game to a penalty shootout. In fact on corner kicks they would typically pack the penalty box with all ten outfield players.
But with twelve minutes to go Davao finally succumbed to the pressure when they fouled Arriola hard in the box. Referee Joemarie Dignadice unhesitatingly awarded a penalty kick to NOFA.
Valmayor showed his composure by getting Davao's goalie, Dominador Tato, to jump to his right before the U.P. Maroon star placed it in the opposite side of the goal. You can watch the video of the penalty here.
The Negrenses nearly doubled their lead in the 88th when Arriola headed towards the goal from close range but Tato saved it well.
At the final whistle NOFA could not hide their delight, as they had repeated as Suzuki champs. In 2011 they triumphed over Iloilo in a two-legged home-and-away final.
The title is worth P50,000 for NOFA and is the second title of the year for the Ceres organization. Early in the year they won the SMART PFF Club championship in the final against Pasargad.
The Negrenses also won big in the individual awards, with Josh Beloya winning best Midfielder, Most Valuable Player, and Golden Boot (top goalscorer) with two other players, North Cotabato's Rudane Tamon and ex-Air Force player Juven Benitez also of North Cotabato. Beloya, Tamon and Benitez all found the back of the net four times over the week.
NOFA's Anthony Tongson won Best Defender and Tato was adjudged finest goalkeeper. Davao won the Fair Play award.
Earlier in the day North Cotabato topped Iloilo 3-0 in the third-place game with Tamon scoring twice.
The nine-team final group stage in Dumaguete followed by the final four was the culmination of a qualification process involving dozens of teams from all over the nation.
Valmayor said after the match that Davao marked him well with two or three defenders, and made the right adjustments to avoid a repeat of the 5-0 loss in the group stage.
“Medyo kinabahan ako nung penalty. Na-pressure ako, pero kelangan kalma lang” said Valmayor, who scored twice in the last week.
Beloya gave credit to the losing team, saying they were worthy finalists. When asked which of his team mates he would like to see alongside him in the Philippine SEA Games squad, the Fil-Swiss star said “I think they all deserve a chance to try out.”
No members of the national U23 coaching staff seemed to be at the match.
NOFA coach Ali Rojas Go said afterwards that he thought the Man of the Match award belonged to NOFA's San Carlos defender Jimmy Malalo-an, who played with the national U22 squad in Myanmar last year.
Follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.