MANILA, Philippines – Three-time Philippine Football League champion Ceres-Negros is setting lofty goals this year, starting with qualification to the group stage of the AFC Champions League.
The country's most successful football club kicks off its quest for a place in Asia's most prestigious club competition next Tuesday, when it clashes with Myanmar's Shan United at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum.
The Busmen came close to reaching the group stage two years ago, when they stunned Australia's Brisbane Roar in the second round. Unfortunately, they fell short in the final phase against Tianjin Quanjian of China.
Last year, Ceres fell at the first hurdle to Myanmar side Yangon United at Panaad Stadium.
Appearing in the first edition of the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum for 2020, Ceres coach coach Risto Vidakovic tempered expectations, as their preparations only started last Monday following a three-month break.
"We cannot promise anything, but we will represent the country in the best way possible," said Vidakovic, who steered the Busmen to the AFC Cup Asean zone title in 2017.
"We are going to fight until the last minute to reach the next round. It's a very hard competition. But we are going to try. We will give our best so I hope everyone will support us," he added.
For the first time in their brief history in continental competitions, the Busmen will be playing their home games at the Rizal Memorial Stadium as the Panaad Stadium is undergoing renovation.
The Busmen regularly attracted crowds of 5,000 in Panaad, and striker Bienvenido Marañon hopes the team gets as much as crowd support in Manila.
"We're all excited," said the Spanish striker, who was the top scorer of the AFC Cup last year with 10 goals. "We are happy to play in Bacolod, but we're also happy to play at Rizal Memorial."
In preparation for a tough year ahead which will also include its title defense in the PFL as well as participation in the revived ASEAN Club Championship, Ceres signed Mark Hartmann, Pika Minegishi, Josh Grommen, and Arnie Pasinabo to beef up its lineup.
Vidakovic insisted they cannot look past Shan United, however, even though they have beaten them twice in the AFC Cup.
A win over the Myanmar League champions will send the Busmen to the second round opposite Thai League 1 team Port FC, which now has former Ceres captain Martin Steuble in its squad.
The winner of the second-round matchup will face Kashima Antlers of Japan for a place in the group stage. Failure to qualify will relegate Ceres to the AFC Cup, the second-tier club competition in the continent.
"Two years ago we made it to the third round so hopefully we can create a surprise again in the first two rounds," said Vidakovic. "Our focus is more on motivation because right now it’s impossible to be fully prepared."
"The mindset is always winning, regardless if we are prepared or we were only playing together for a short time," said Stephan Schrock. "I'm playing against the idea of losing."
"In the back of my mind, I want to qualify," he stressed. "I'm looking for history."
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