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'Better than ever' Marañón ready for historic 2021 AFC Champions League challenge

Tashkent: United City FC are set to make Philippines football history when the nation debuts in Asia's premium club competition, the AFC Champions League. The team's main source of goals, Bienvenido Marañón, will be aiming to make it an occasion to remember.

After falling at the final hurdle in the playoffs in back-to-back years, United City FC - then known as Ceres Negros - are finally set to make their AFC Champions League group stage debut, a landmark achievement for Filipino football. caught up exclusively with United City FC forward Marañón, the AFC Cup's all-time top scorer, ahead of the 2021 AFC Champions League kick off to discuss the Spain-born striker's preparations, their Group I opponents and his goals for the tournament.

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Hi Bienvenido, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We're just days away from the 2021 AFC Champions League (East) kick-off. How has your preparation been?

Thanks for having me be part of this interview. Yes, I've been really focused on preparing for this beautiful tournament, it's been my main focus ever since our domestic season concluded.

For the last four months I've been back in Spain, training with my old team, Yugo UD Socuellamos, who currently play in Spain's Segunda Division B. That has made me train even stronger, if possible, due to the level they have.

Most recently I've been in Dubai with the United City FC team at our training camp and I feel better than ever, physically and mentally stronger, to face this challenge.

How excited are you about playing at the 2021 AFC Champions League? What does it mean to you personally?

It is one of the objectives that I set for myself when I arrived in the Philippines back in 2015. I’m close to achieving it now and that makes me very proud. All the hard work that I have done has resulted in this great opportunity.

Personally, I think our team deserves this chance because of what we achieved in the past, with Ceres Negros before and as United City FC now.

You mentioned there about your previous history in the competition. On several occasions you went close in the play-offs, does that feeling of getting so close before make this chance now even more rewarding?

Yes, we have been close to reaching the group stage in the last two years although we honestly knew that it was very difficult to eliminate Chinese or Japanese teams due to their level, but we have always fought very well and that made us feel proud.

Now we are excited to finally play a part in the group stage and we will enjoy it like never before.

#ACL2020 - Play-offs: FC Tokyo 2-0 Ceres Negros FC

It is true that due to COVID-19 we have seen some important players leave the club, including our coach Risto Vidakovic, but I am sure that we will do our best and make everyone proud.

You also mentioned earlier you were part of Ceres Negros back then, but now the team is known as United City FC, what major differences have you encountered?

We are the same club, but with a different owner and a different name. The change occurred in the midst of the pandemic and that brought consequences such as the departure of our coach and other important players such as Super [Manuel Herrera Lopez] and Roland Muller.

Despite that, we had a great end to the season and we qualified for the AFC Champions League.

This year, unfortunately, some other important players left like Manny Ott and Takashi Odawara. Nevertheless, we have brought in some good new additions and, crucially, we retained our experienced captain Stephan Schrock (above right).

As all-time top scorer in AFC Cup, you obviously excelled at that competition, but how big a step up do you think the AFC Champions League will be?

I have to say that it's a big step up, everything is different, especially the quality of the teams involved. We have been drawn in one of the toughest groups and we'll have to be fully concentrated and focused for the full 90 minutes.

Personally, I will take it as a big chance to rise my level and become an even better player thanks to the experience we'll gain from playing in the AFC Champions League.

You referenced your group just there, so let's talk about your Group I opponents, what do you know about Kawasaki Frontale, Beijing FC and Daegu FC?

Well, I usually watch many games in their leagues and I can only say that they are at a very different level from us. They are very strong teams – physically, technically and tactically – they have everything they need to go far in the competition. We just hope to enjoy each match and learn from each of our opponents.

As you say, the AFC Champions League is a tough competition. What are your main goals and aims as a player and as a team for the 2021 edition?

Our goal as a team is to prepare well, compete as best we can, and above all to learn a lot from this new experience that will serve us for the future.

As a player, I want to improve my level and learn from this experience and these games that will surely be very different from the AFC Cup.

United City FC, along with Kaya FC depending on the play-offs, will be the first Filipino club to play in the AFC Champions League, how important a milestone do you think this is for Filipino football?

It is very important for Filipino football. The sport in the country has been growing in recent years thanks to the good work of the federation and the national team, they are taking slow but sure steps for the future and all this makes them even stronger.

I hope that our participation in this competition can serve to take another big step that the country needs so that football can become an important sport for them.

And finally, you are also in the naturalisation stage right now: why was it so important to you to go through this process and represent the Philippines in international football?

Well, it is a dream that is about to come true. We are coming to the end of the process and I am very excited about this new opportunity that is presented to me.

It comes to me at the perfect moment in my career, when I feel at my peak physically and mentally, and with enough experience to face this new challenge.

I am very grateful to all the people involved in my naturalisation and I am sure that I will make them feel proud to have me as one more Filipino. Above all, by contributing positive things both on and off the pitch.

I want to be an example for others and be able to inspire them to take football as a way of life. Where apart from living beautiful moments it also provides you with good health and meeting people who will become closer than friends.

Photos: United City FC

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