The UFL Cup group stages have come and passed and the Loyola Meralco Sparks are now in the middle of a break from competitive football. Action resumes on April 2, when the Sparks clash with fierce rivals Kaya in a quarterfinal encounter. Aside from being a matchup that historically brings a heightened intensity, there are more reasons to be excited for Loyola’s next game. Here are four to consider as we look ahead to the highly anticipated affair.
The Sparks Youngsters’ Explosive Talent
During the UFL Cup group stage, Jorrel Aristorenas and new signing Kouichi Belgira emerged as consistent performers. The young talents were named in the starting line up in every game, and they repaid the faith with tirelessly solid outings. Such was their impact, that the duo were named in the Philippine team’s training pool for the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers — a experience likely to further boost their confidence.
Belgira, only 19, joined the club shortly before the start of the UFL Cup, but he’s taken very little time to cement his position as a regular. With a calm head and plenty of energy, Head Coach Simon McMenemy mentioned that given Belgira’s rate of development, he could very well become a valuable player for both the national team and for the Sparks.
Meanwhile, Aristorenas, who just turned 22, has been taking command of the midfield. His vision and soft touch on the ball allowed him to orchestrate some impressive penetration into opposition defenses. His link ups with the likes of Jason de Jong and Akira Miyayama has added a real dynamism to the team’s center.
The two youngsters have shown that they can not only hang with the best players in the country, but can excel. Adding energy, speed, and dedication to the squad, the duo could prove vital in the quarterfinal round.
The Chance to Defeat the Reigning Champions
The Sparks were the UFL Cup champions before last year. Heading into the quarterfinals on April 2, Loyola have the opportunity to dethrone the holders en route to reclaiming the title. Kaya FC, who are currently competing in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup, make for a stiff test to begin the knockout stages, but the match offers an opportunity to measure up against a team that has shown competence on the Asian stage.
“Might as well get them out of the way,” said Jason de Jong on the highly anticipated clash, alluding to the notion that the two sides would’ve likely collided at some point in the competition.
The two teams have a track record of some thrilling matches, and the looming quarterfinal is expected to result in another pulsating experience.
A win for the Sparks would not only bring the team a step closer to reclaiming the UFL Cup, and obtaining the AFC Cup qualification that it brings, it would also send out a statement that the club is primed for the challenges of Asian competition.
Returning Key Players
Regular starters missed the majority of the group stages, with veterans Phil Younghusband, Simon Greatwich, and Joaco Cañas all struck down with injuries shortly before the start of the competition. The trio could all be back in action against Kaya, though, with both Simon and Joaco already seeing action in the backend of the group stage. Phil Younghusband’s fitness continues to be the big question mark, as the star striker continues his rehabilitation from a knee problem.
New signing Alvaro Castiella didn’t seem to suffer any lasting effects from his ankle sprain against Green Archers United, as the Spanish striker bagged a double hat-trick against Nomads to cap the group stages. Tahj Minniecon, who missed that last outing, is likely to be back fit for the knockout round as well, further bolstering Simon McMenemy’s options
One player who will certainly not be suiting up is Arnel Amita, who is recovering from an ACL injury. The young midfielder had a successful operation to repair his knee, but isn’t expected to return to action until August.
With the quarterfinals still two weeks away, the Sparks roster could be close to full health at the perfect moment.
Goals, Goals, and More Goals
The Sparks have scored a total of 23 goals so far this season, an output second only to Ceres-La Salle in the group stage. Alvaro Castiella leads the team, and the competition, with nine. Tahj Minniecon and James Younghusband follow the Spaniard in the Loyola scoring charts with four each. Jinggoy Valmayor, Jason de Jong, and Jake Morallo, round out the list with two apiece.
With Minniecon nearing recovery from his mild injury, Castiella’s early explosion, and hopefully, the return of Phil Younghusband, the Sparks are packing the firepower to potentially set the knockout rounds ablaze with goals. Though the competition is expected to increase in difficulty, the Sparks have shown the necessary killer instinct to punish even the best of defenses.