Suzuki Cup champions force draw against PH Azkals
MANILA, Philippines - With the win within reach, the Philippine Azkals conceded a goal in injury time, after Ahmad Shakir Md Ali scored on the 91st minute to force a 1-1 draw in the FIFA-sanctioned friendly match between the Azkals and the Malaysia Tigers at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
Newcomer Denis Wolf, who scored his first goal as an Azkal in the benefit game against the Icheon Citizens last January 21, duplicated that feat when he scored a header at the 34th minute from a Jason Sabio throw-in.
The home team Azkals took a 1-nil lead at the half.
Malaysia had several chances of scoring a goal or two in the first half, the last at the 32nd minute when S. Kunanlan attempted a longshot.
"We played solid and strong today but we were unlucky in the second half but I think its a fair result (the draw)," said Azkals head coach Michael Weiss. "I'm hoping that we'd be as competitive as the Suzuki Cup champions in maybe 7 or 8 years. We're still not there but we hope we'd get there."
The Philippine Azkals, who is notorious for having a breakdown in defense on the latter part of games, stayed tough and united throughout. Weiss credits his players' heart for their performance.
"Even with the draw, I think we were able to compensate with the great fighting spirit," said Weiss. "It's a bit painful but we'll just work on our lapses. We only have a couple of weeks to prepare for the first match (against North Korea). We hope we can keep the momentum going."
The Azkals will play at the AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal next week and will first face Nort Korea on March 9.
Malaysia did not have ample time to prepare for the said match but was able to test the toughness of the runner-up of the Suzuki Cup. The Malaysia Tigers only had 2 days of practice in preparation for the friendly game.
The Azkals and Weiss did not have any unusual or unique preparation for the match either.
"It's a friendly match today so nothing is really at stake. You can win or you can lose. What made this match special is that this was between the Suzuki Cup Champions and the runners-up and it happened at the home of the runners-up," said Weiss.
Azkals goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who played an exceptional game after saving a number of would-have-been goals of the Tigers, took pride in the team's performance.
"We had a good game and yes, we were able to prove how far we've come," he said. "Of course we would've wanted to win but we live and we learn."
The Fulham FC third stringer, whose presence is games is significantly noticeable, is still unsure whether he'll be available to join the Azkals for the Challenge Cup next month.
"Our team has more depth now. After this press conference, I will have to make a call and ask my coach back home if I'd be allowed to join our national team next month," he said.
Malaysian coach Datu K Rajagobal expected a tough match against the Philippines.
"We really expected the Azkals to start aggressively. We could have sealed the game in the first half with two goals but went into halftime with none but good thing we were able to come back in the 2nd half," he said. "All throughout it was an entertaining match. I want to give credit to my players for the never-give-up attitude they had today."
Noting that the Philippines had better preparations than Malaysia, Rajagobal added, "I hope if they can keep that constant game of theirs, they have a fair chance of matching up with the higher seeded teams they are to go up against in the Challenge Cup."
Sole Malaysia scorer Ahmad Shakir Md Ali, who went in as a substitute at the 66th minute agreed that the Azkals put up a good challenge.
"It was a very tough game. At the crucial stage, we were not aggressive enough but luckily we were able to recover in the injury time," he said.
While the last-minute equalizer was heartbreaking for Filipino fans, Weiss was happy overall with his team's performance.
"We made a fantastic match today, (we're) hoping we're ready for the Challenge Cup. The chemistry is good now and if we continue to play at this level, we're on the right track."
See photos of the game here. - Rappler.com