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Azkals, welcome to the semi-finals

Natashya Gutierrez
[UPDATED] The Azkals defeat Tajikistan 2-1 in their do-or-die game, qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup playoffs

 

TEAMWORK. The Azkals huddle in their game before the LA Galaxy. December 3, 2011. Beth Frondoso.

MANILA, Philippines – The Azkals have made history. 

The men’s Philippine football team, in their first trip to the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup, secured the last semi-finals ticket at the expense of Tajikistan, 2-1 at the Halchowk Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Tajikistan’s Negmatov Alexey drew first blood at the 46th minute — injury time in the 1st half — to enter the 2nd half 1-nil over the Philippines.

The controversial goal was a header from a corner kick, that was deflected by goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and defender Carli de Murga.

But after the header, Tajikistan instantly celebrated even without a call from the referee — believing the ball had crossed the line by the time de Murga pushed it away.

After some debate, Tajikistan got the goal, giving them the lead.

But the Azkals fought right back in the 2nd half.

Down 1-0 at the half, Chelsea’s product Phil Younghusband booked the game-tying goal at the 54th minute blasting it into the center of the goal, off a terrific pass from Angel Guirado on the left side.

It was Younghusband’s 21st international goal.

But Guirado was not satisfied with just an assist.

Guirado sealed the deal at the 80th minute when he headed the ball into the goal, putting the Azkals up 2-1. This time, it was Younghusband’s turn to dish off a feed to Guirado, through a cross from the right wing.

Tight fight

The determined Philippine team wasted several good opportunities in the 1st half, with the biggest attacks coming from Phil Younghusband on the 9th and 32nd minute. He blasted the ball from the right side but it went straight to the hands of the Tajik goalkeeper both times.

Some strong throw-ins by Jason Sabio were also ineffective, after the Azkals could not get a head or foot on the ball.

Both teams came out fierce on the 2nd half — with both teams hungry for goals.

After Younghusband’s equalizer, Tajikistan continued to pile on the pressure, with two Tajik players getting yellow cards for being too aggressive.

An attempt by Phil Younghusband in the 68th minute almost put the Azkals up earlier, but his shot hit the far right post.

After Guirado’s equalizer however, the Azkals continued to pound the goal of a discouraged Tajikistan team but a third goal would not go in.

James Younghusband and Guirado also received their second yellow cards of the tournament.

‘Biggest game of their lives’

Head coach Michael Weiss praised his players for the unprecedented accomplishment.

“To get past this stage was our target before, and I’m glad we met it,” said Weiss.

Team manager Dan Palami was speechless about the win, admitting the team had exceeded expectations.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to get to this tournament after having gone through different stages,” said Palami. “I can’t find the right words to describe this feeling that we are now in the semifinals. This is unbelievable, considering the kind of preparations we had to make for this competition.”

But Weiss disagreed. He said the performance was a result of teamwork and cohesion.

“Honestly, I believe this is not something based on coincidence. We have a group that works together,” he said. “[I] hope we can achieve more and have a good result against Turkmenistan on Friday.”

Palami also reminded the media of the significance of the feat.

“The boys played the biggest game of their lives. It was all about talents and heart in the second half that is why we got back,” said Palami. “More than the Suzuki Cup Semis, the AFC Challenge Cup is a bigger stage.” 

Hopeful underdogs

The Azkals entered the crucial game filled with excitement.

Both teams came in dead-even, after both defeated India 2-0, and conceded the same number of goals to North Korea, which has already secured a semi-finals berth.

The Philippines will face Turkmenistan in the semi-finals on Friday, March 16 at 4:30 pm. Defending champions North Korea will meet Palestine in the semis.

A win on Friday will send the Philippines to the finals, while a loss will put them up against the team that loses the North Korea-Palestine match, for a shot at 3rd place.

With the win, the Philippines is expected to move up to an improved spot in the FIFA World Rankings. Tajikistan is ranked 11 spots higher than the Philippines at 145th, while the Philippines sits at the 156th spot. 

Tajikistan took home the crown in 2006, finished 1st runner-up in 2008, and won 3rd place in 2010. 

This is the first time the Azkals have qualified for the prestigious tournament. – With reports from Mia Domingo/Rappler.com