Police no longer undefeated; Placencia wins, 2-1

Before the game

Despite a busy Saturday, it was a game we couldn't miss. And, though we wouldn't venture through the Coastal Road again (It's much shorter, but a much rougher ride.) the long journey to Independence Village was worth the 3-hour plus driving.

You could feel the football fever in the streets as you near the Michael Ashcroft Stadium. It was only 6:30 p.m., and game 1 of the Premier League finals between visiting Police United and home-standing Placencia Assassins was not scheduled to begin until 7:30.

There was another game, a female match between Gentle Touch of Esperanza and Sagitun Girls, which Gentle Touch reportedly won, 2-1; and those fans needed to exit the stadium before the growing throng outside could be accommodated at the gate to enter for the big game.

It's been quite a while since we last saw such a long line to buy tickets and/or to enter a football game. A good sign. And finely dressed females were in evidence, if not dominating the landscape. This is indeed the metropolis of football in Belize, the only stadium with a major "bleachers" sporting an overhead roof for the fans. Three other large bleachers adorn the area behind the western goal line, and by game time, they were all almost full, plus many standing against the wire barrier, boisterous and not in the least bashful about declaring their total faith in, and support of, their Placencia Assassins.

It is hard to imagine that during the regular season, undefeated Police United had twice beaten the Placencia Assassins, and one of those victories (2-1) had happened right here. Apparently, that was all forgotten; or it was just a matter of confidence that this would be, had to be, payback time. Before the game even began, from the time the Assassins trotted into the arena, holding hands in a chain-style demonstration of unity, the Independence fans burst into applause and celebration of the victory they absolutely knew would come. It was hard not to believe them, and the body language of the Placencia players demonstrated a confidence and resolve that could only come from being fully prepared, physically and mentally, and also bolstered by the overwhelming show of love and support from a huge and very vocal majority of fans, who had virtually silenced any possible dissenting voice in support of the visiting opponents.

I didn't discern the same vibes around the Police team locker room, where, aside from the fact that they would be without Shannon Flowers (red card); and Jarret Davis was questionable because of an injury in the last game; their star striker, Evan Mariano, had not yet arrived at the stadium. In fact, Mariano reportedly had not appeared for any of the team's workouts during the previous week. A bad sign. Approaching game time, from my experience, little things can affect the composure and psychological focus of a team.

Betraying a feeling of doubt, one Police United player asked for my honest opinion about the coming game. I spoke to a fellow sports reporter and past top-rated player. I talked to a team owner/manager from further south. And we all concurred. It didn't look good for Police.

Play ball

Placencia Assassins fans filled the Michael Ashcroft Stadium in Independence Village on Saturday night, May 5, for game 1 of the home-and-away championship series against then undefeated Police United. And the Assassins fans were not disappointed, as their squad came away with a 2-1 victory, breaking the undefeated streak of the visitors, and setting the stage for a monster game 2 for the championship this coming Saturday night at the FFB Stadium in Belmopan.

The two regular season meetings were close, 1-nil and 2-1, both in favor of Police; so there was no expectation of a blow-out on either side in Saturday's game 1. And, coming off their sensational penalty shoot-out win over BDF the week before in San Ignacio, Placencia Assassins fans were pumped up for game 1 at home against Police, determined not to fall a third straight time to their opponents.

The styles of the two teams make for an exciting match whenever they meet, as both play a fiercely attacking game, with the wing midfielders, Devon and Andres Makin, Jr. for Police, and Dellon and Luis "Baca" Torres for Placencia, running the lines hard and fast at both ends of the field. Both teams give a lot of freedom, "liborio" style, to their central defensive stopper, Bernard "Hijo" Linares for Police, and Ernie Whyte for Placencia. Both of their central midfield personnel, Orlando "Leechi" Jimenez and James Logan, Jr. for Police, and Elias Donaire and Scott Casey for Placencia, tended to look for the long ball feed to their front line, which led to a fast-paced attack that resulted in frequent counter attacks, as possession was not maintained for long by either side.

Notably missing from the Police starting line-up were left defence Shannon Flowers (serving a 1-game red card suspension) and midfield/striker Jarret Davis, recovering from a bruised ankle, as well as their number 1 forward, Evan Mariano, who was late for the game and thus relegated to coming off the bench at half-time.

Placencia coach David "Rat" Torres had all his "horses in the gate," and elected to start with captain/sweeper Dalton Eiley, flanked by Brent Whyte on his right and Jason Kelly on his left in defence. Leomar Leslie and their leading goal scorer Ashley Torres started up front.

For Police, coach Andres Makin, Sr. went with sweeper Kishane "Grill" Pech, Glen "Tipu" Martinez on his right, and Amando Dubon at left defence. Starting as twin-strikers for Police were their leading scorers, Lennox "Criminal" Castillo and Trevor "Burger" Lennon.

The game played; it was intense and exciting, though lacking in the passing sophistication and patience in attack exhibited by some teams from past glory days. But there was individual skill, and speed and energy, with a willingness to gamble for the spectacular on both sides. There were ample near misses at both ends, with Elias Pelayo in goal for Placencia and Japheth Young for Police making a number of difficult saves. Placencia seemed to have more threats at goal.

In a match as keenly contested as this, it would inevitably come down to a spectacular play or an error by one side that would result in a goal. After retrieving a ball on the defensive right flank, Police midfielder Devon Makin elected to try and beat his counterpart Luis "Baca" Torres, who managed to steal the ball and make a break toward the Police goal, "smoking" a shot from just inside the penalty area past an advancing Japheth Young into the net for the first goal of the game at the 35th minute of 1st half. Placencia fans went wild. A shell-shocked Police team almost suffered another calamity 2 minutes later, when Placencia's Leomar Leslie reached the right goal line and sent a ground ball across the goal area that an oncoming Ashley Torres sent high over the cross bar; it could easily have been 2-zip. But a short while later, at the 43rd minute, Ashley got another opportunity when a shot by Placencia midfielder Dellon Torres was pushed out by a diving Japheth Young, and a trailing Ashley waited patiently this time for the high bouncing ball to drop into his range, before carefully directing it into the upper right corner; 2-nil, Placencia. It was celebration time for Placencia fans.

With the insertion of Evan Mariano into the attack in 2nd half, the Police attack seemed to gain some traction, but Placencia was not giving anything away. Just when it seemed everything was going wrong for Police, shortly after Criminal had crumpled to the ground following a collision with his own teammate Andres Makin, Jr., Andres sent a long overhead pass searching for Mariano in the Placencia defensive area. The ball was perfect length, too long for Eiley and the rest of the Placencia defence, but not far enough for goalie Elias Pelayo to reach before a speedy Mariano intercepted the ball, moved to his left, and sent the ball into the net for Police's first goal at the 84th minute. More than just a consolation goal, it changed the picture for a Police team that was already looking ahead to the final showdown in Belmopan. As painful as the loss was, 2-1 sounded much better than 2-nil. And, despite a few other close calls, it stayed that way till the end.