31 October 2012

Stallions’ Rout Leaves Air Force With Plenty to Think About

There are few things in sport quite as sad to see as the sight of a proven champion falling right at the first hurdle. That was exactly what happened to the Philippine Air Force Football Club last night after it was comprehensively beaten by Stallion Penson FC in a United Football League Group D clash at the University of Makati football stadium.

With the embarrassing 1-5 loss, Air Force surrendered the UFL Cup that they won in glorious fashion less than a year ago after a scintillating victory over the favoured Loyola Meralco Sparks at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Because the Philippine Army had already clinched a quarter-final spot by accumulating eight points from its four group matches, last night’s clash between the Air Force and the Stallions was for all intents and purposes a one-off cup tie.

The early exit will provide the Air Force coaching staff with plenty to think about heading into the new league season. They do say that success in football is cyclical; but Air Force have been up there for so long that something does not feel quite right when they are booted out at the group stage.
An early goal by Stallions’ Spanish import Rufo Sanchez after Air Force goalkeeper Tats Mercado failed to hold onto his initial header seemed a fluke; and in no way seemed portentous of the rout that the game would subsequently turn out to be.

Air Force continued to boss possession without creating any chances of real significance save for a shot from Chieffy Caligdong which he crashed against a post. Stallions, meanwhile, dug in to protect their lead and preferred to play on the counter. When Sanchez helped himself to a second just before halftime, the Airmen found themselves in a deeper hole from which to dig themselves out of.

Second half goals for the Stallions by Joaco Canas, Joo Young Lee and OJ Clariño completed the rout, which in all honesty could have been more embarrassing. Twice, Ruben Doctora ran at the Air Force goal only to be denied by Mercado as well as his own lack of composure.

When Sanchez was felled by the last Air Force defender and a clear run at goal cynically broken up, the Airmen should have been reduced to ten men. To be fair, Jason de Jong’s high-foot challenge on Peter Jaugan would have been called straight red by some Premiership referees.

Although Ian Araneta helped himself to a consolation goal in the game’s dying stages, the freekick should never have been awarded in the first place. Although the ball came off the Stallion defender’s foot and was scooped up by the goalkeeper, it was never a deliberate pass back and looked more a ricochet off the defender’s foot.

Although Air Force still has one group match to play, this has been reduced to an exhibition as both Stallions and Army have qualified for the quarter-finals from Group D.

The UFL Cup is the second tournament in a row in which the Airmen were knocked off from their erstwhile lofty perch. In the league, which concluded last June, they were also the defending champions but were reduced at the end of the season to mid-table obscurity.

If that ignominy was not proof enough of the need for Air Force to reinvent themselves, then last night’s loss to Stallions certainly was.

Last season, on the way to UFL Cup glory, the Airmen first put Kaya FC to the sword with a fine display of intricate passing football but then kept the Sparks out by showing that they knew how to park the bus in the final.

Last night, the Airmen were one-dimensional and lacked a Plan B. The way that they played was also something of a failure of tactics.

To go gung-ho forward may work against other teams; but the Stallions make their buck from counterattacking football and were too organised to be unlocked by wave after wave of Air Force attacks. Because the Airmen were pushing too many men forward – and thus leaving the midfield and backline thin – they were in fact playing into the Stallions’ hands.

While the open game might have been exciting for neutrals, this was also symptomatic of the Airmen’s tactical fail. First of all, they were not as quick as the Stallions in recovering space when attacks broke down – hardly surprising as the team is not one made up of spring chickens.

Then again, the early Stallions goal should not have been the cue to throw caution into the winds. The midfield could have been kept tighter because there was still an eternity of football to be played. Such open abandon is always how counterattacking teams prefer their opponents to play.

Plan B could have been to shuffle the ball around in midfield or at the back more to tempt the Stallions into chasing the ball and hopefully concede spaces at the back. The troublesome pitch, admittedly, would have made this not only difficult but also dangerous.

That said, the ball was still rolling; and the Airmen were the vastly experienced defending champions.

The early exit will provide the Air Force coaching staff with plenty to think about heading into the new league season. They do say that success in football is cyclical; but Air Force have been up there for so long that something does not feel quite right when they are booted out at the group stage.

It is no secret that everyone else in the UFL has gotten better all within the space of a mere season. For the Air Force, there are really just two choices to ponder: climb back up; or sink deeper into the mire.

It should be a pretty straightforward choice to make for a club rich in footballing tradition and history. After all, it is the Air Force! The club’s rightful place is where else but up there.

Air Force logo from UFL Official Site.

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