Last year during the UFL Cup I gave Kaya coach David Perkovic a lift back to his apartment in BGC after we watched some games in Emperador. I recall telling him that I thought it would be very difficult for Kaya to match up with Global and Meralco in the league.
“Well, I'm quietly confident of Kaya's chances” was the young Aussie's simple reply.
Months later, his words seem prescient, as his side throttled Loyola 3-1 on Tuesday night to move into a tie for second in the Division One table with Loyola, just four points off league-leading Global. (Global does have a game in hand.)
Kaya got a massive boost from Pablo Rodriguez Aracil, their new Spanish striker, who scored a pair of fabulous goals.
Rodriguez Aracil is 28 years old, and has four goals for Kaya in as many games since he joined them in the transfer window. The well-traveled forward is a product of the youth system of La Liga side Valencia, and has played in Ireland, Cyprus, India, Honduras, Spain, Romania, and now the Philippines.
This is a big fellow we are talking about, 6'3” inches tall. And he used that size brilliantly on Tuesday. In the opening goal he soared majestically over a thicket of Spark defenders to meet a free kick from Richard Greer and redirect it into the top corner.
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Then with his team leading 2-0 and the second half underway, Aracil struck again, collecting a high ball from Chris Greatwich in the box, using his frame to shield the ball from Spark centerback Sam Bonney, then whirling around and poking the ball in between the Ghanaian's legs and into the bottom left corner.
In both strikes, Loyola goalie Baba Sampana was powerless to react.
Rodriguez Aracil is a quintessential center forward, or number nine in old-school footballing squad number convention. Nines, also sometimes called target forwards, are terrific in the air and also handy with the ball at their feet. They can finesse the ball into the net, but oftentimes coax it in with a heady mix of guile, speed, and sheer brute force. Think Didier Drogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and, in the Philippines, Izo Elhabbib. Ian Araneta was a terrific nine for the Philippines with his strength and aerial skill.
The big Spaniard has been the prettiest girl in the Transfer Window Ball by far, with two colossal strikes that only burnish his newfound reputation as one of the league's elite strikers.
But it was more than just Rodriguez Aracil who won it for Kaya. Perkovic seems to have mastered the fistfight-in-a-phonebooth brand of football that has emerged in the UFL thanks to the cramped Empy pitch. His charges pressed and harried the Meralco ballcarriers ruthlessly all night long, rendering the Meralco midfield impotent.
James Younghusband was invisible in the first half and invisibler in the second. The Azkal was unable to stamp his authority on the game. Ditto for Park Bo Bae and Lee Won Hyung in the center of the park. Matt Hartmann had a few moments in the left flank but in general was stymied well by Anton Del Rosario.
Loyola's only functioning player in the midfield was... not a midfielder. It was Phil Younghusband. The all-time leading Azkal scorer is not a number nine, he is more like a number ten (hence his jersey number), or support/second striker who plays nearer the center of the park than a nine.
Phil loves to score but he also loves to pass. And he unspooled a bunch of dishes on Tuesday night, with mostly unerring accuracy. Unfortunately his buddies couldn't convert them to chances.
Loyola coach Vince Santos started Fred Gonzalez as his target man but the veteran couldn't summon any magic and was sacrificed at the half for Boyet Cañedo, who was equally ineffective.
The only move that Santos made that prospered was bringing in Lee Joo Young at the half and stationing him in a central position (he usually operates from the wings). Lee's late strike was the Sparks' only goal.
“Our movement off the ball and hard work on defense was key” said Perkovic after the game. “Our defense shut down their key players and we won possession in the middle third.”
This was in stark contrast to the Loyola coach's assessment of the game.
“I have to accept that it seems like Kaya had more heart” confessed a morose Santos in the postgame press conference.
Loyola is a shadow of the team that won their first five games. The possession game, precise passing, and intelligent movement away from the ball have vanished. There is an air of panic and a whiff of desperation with the Sparks, who have now amassed just one point from three games. Meralco are looking more and more like the 2012 Stallion team that charged out of the blocks, only to falter late.
Loyola have all but one point to show for in their last three matches. This while Global is on a five-game winning streak.
Global will vault to a seven-point lead atop the standings if they can defeat Stallion on Thursday. That means they will have to lose three games or draw a bunch if there is a chance of someone else hoisting the league trophy come June.
Kaya's win does make the title chase a three-cornered fight, but Global now has pole position.
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I asked Azkals coach Thomas Dooley after the game about OJ Porteria's surprising omission from the Azkals roster for the friendlies in Qatar later this month.
While I did not take down notes or record our quick conversation, the gist of Dooley's words (which I confirmed to be on the record) was this: he feels the youngster from Kaya is injured often for Azkals training sessions, and yet he sees him playing for his club soon after. Apparently Dooley wants better commitment and fitness from the Virginian.
Porteria had a good shift for Kaya on Tuesday, scoring a penalty. He may be absent in Qatar against Nepal, but I sincerely doubt if the winger/forward, if healthy, will miss the Challenge Cup.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.