UFL Cup Recap: Giant Quarterfinal Looms After Tricky Group Stage

The three week break after the United Football League Cup group stage is almost over. Just seven days away before the knockout stages, let’s take a look back on how the Loyola Meralco Sparks captured their quarterfinals spot.

Ceres-La Salle: First Loss, Impressive Performance

The season started in a disappointing, but encouraging manner, with a last-gasp defeat to UFL League champions Ceres-La Salle.

The first half didn’t end so well for the Sparks as Carli de Murga scored 10 minutes before the break, penetrating what was a valiant resistance from Loyola. Far from downtrodden, though, the team resurfaced in the second period revitalized. Shortly after coming on, Jinggoy Valmayor leveled the score, with his strike sneaking under the goal keeper.

The match looked destined for a draw but, Ceres managed to break the tie through a corner kick deep into added time.

Head coach Simon McMenemy was satisfied with the Sparks’ performance despite the defeat, pointing to the fact that the team worked hard and did a great job stopping Ceres from scoring, though a minor slip caused them the last minute upset.

Pasargad FC: The Hat Trick Galore

The Loyola Meralco Sparks bagged their first three points of the group stage by taking out frustrations on Pasargad FC. Even though the team played with only 14 players available on the night, a hat-trick each from Alvaro Castiella and Tahj Minniecon, plus another goal from the team captain, James Younghusband, secured the win for the Sparks.

Within 15 minutes of the game, Castiella started the onslaught after facing the keeper on a one-on-one. Minniecon began his scoring spree with a goal courtesy of Jorrel Aristorenas’ slick assist. Castiella then added his second goal shortly after.

The second half started with another goal from Minniecon, though Pasargad also responded with a goal of their own. Minniecon completed his hat-trick with Aristorenas and Curt Dizon paving the way for a well-taken curling effort. James Younghusband then took advantage of a free kick to tap in and join in the scoring. Castiella completed his hat-trick a minute after with a clinical strike.

Green Archers: The Sixth Point

With confidence on a high, the Sparks scored four against the Green Archers to make it back-to-back wins. All goals came from a different scorer, with Valmayor, Minniecon, Castiella and Younghusband all finding the back of the net.

Valmayor started the game in the best possible manner, with his first touch of the ball a low drive into goal. Younghusband added his own moments after, bundling the ball past the opposition keeper. Green Archers repiled with their own goal, though, with Gary Epesso capitalizing on some slack defending.

The second half proved tougher, as the team encountered difficulties finding their rhythm. Minniecon’s introduction coincided with a reestablishment of the Sparks’ two-goal advantage, as the Australian curled in an effort into the top corner. Jake Morallo contributed the final goal with Valmayor feeding the final ball from a breakaway. Green Archers found their way to reduce the deficit with a goal from Jesus Melliza, but it would do little to affect the final result.

Contrary to the Sparks-Ceres game, however, head coach Simon McMenemy was disappointed with the team despite the win.

“We were very sloppy. We were doing things we had not done this season, which just frustrates me when we’re working very hard to make sure these things don’t happen.” McMenemy said.

Global FC: Ending the Winning Streak

With an injury-stricken lineup, the Sparks faced their first defeat against Global FC under Simon McMenemy’s reign. The result also snapped the two-game winning run.

The Sparks had difficulty finding their rhythm right from the onset. The absence of Jason de Jong was evident as Loyola struggled in transitioning from offense to defense. Although Meralco was forced into a mostly defensive shape, Kouchi Belgira and Jorrel Aristorenas came close on separate occasions. Belgira sprinted freely on the left flank but failed to hit the mark, while Aristorenas broke through his defender but his attempt was fired just wide.

Arthur Kouassi’s first half header gave Global the advantage before the break, but it was Omid Nazari’s thunderbolt to double the lead that sealed the Sparks’ fate. Alvaro Castiella threatened to reduce the deficit, but the Spaniard ran out of time to find the back of the net.

“To be honest, our injuries caught up with us. We’ve had a lot of injuries from the start and there was a lot of motivation from Global to try and get back on track,” said Simon McMenemy after the game

Manila Nomads: Castiella on Fire

The Loyola Meralco Sparks ended the UFL Cup group stage with a goal fest against Manila Nomads. The Rizal Memorial Stadium was set ablaze with a double hat-trick from Alvaro Castiella, while James Younghusband and Jason de Jong chipped in two goals each. Jake Morallo also added to the goal fest.

An aggressive Sparks showed up that night with James turning in an early goal. 15-minutes later Alvaro scored. The loss from Global ignited the Sparks and it showed with the way the team pinged the ball around.

The third came quickly, with Younghusband taking a penalty after Castiella was brought down inside the box. De Jong joined the scoring after hitting a low drive three minutes after. The first half didn’t end dull for the Sparks, as Alvaro outmaneuvered his defenders before firing in a spectacular fifth for team. Capping off the period, de Jong ended the opening half with another goal.

Castiella took it to an even higher gear in the second half. His first hat trick was completed after striking from the edge of the box. Not long after, his second hat-trick was on its way with another shot from outside. His onslaught did not end there, as he slipped through his defender and unleashed another. Jake Morallo, another goal scorer, assisted Castiella’s sixth and final goal of the night.

Besides the scorers, Kouichi Belgira’s performance impressed coach Simon McMenemy. According to the coach, Kouichi played tremendous that night sans his own goal.

Preparing for Kaya

The quarterfinals are scheduled on April 2. The Sparks will be facing the reigning champions of the UFL Cup, Kaya FC, with kickoff at the Rizal Memorial Stadium scheduled at 8:15pm. Kaya are coming fresh from two successive wins in the AFC Cup, and have historically been one of Loyola’s toughest rivals.

“We are going to train this month and we have friendly matches and that is how we we will prepare for that game,” Castiella said.

With the Sparks welcoming back Joaco Cañas and Simon Greatwich, and Phil Younghusband on the mend, Loyola might just be returning to full fitness at the best possible time. Jorrel Aristorenas and Tommy Trigo have also been away on international duty for the Philippines, raising hopes that the duo will return revitalized and even more focused for the knockout rounds of the UFL Cup.

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