Nepal 0, Philippines 0. Thoughts on a frustrating evening
The Philippines picked up a third Asian Cup qualifying draw in a row on Tuesday after the Group F encounter against Nepal in Kathmandu finished goalless. In our previous two matches we also shared points with Yemen twice via 2-2 and 1-1 scores.
After we manhandled the Nepalese 4-1 at home in March, this seemed to be an easy three points for the Philippines. Get the W, pop the champagne, and start looking for cheap flights to Dubai in 2019, where the final stage will be held.
But it just wasn't to be for Thomas Dooley's men on a difficult afternoon.
As I feared, this match proved to be a stumbling block
Back in January when the draw for the qualifying came out, I wrote these words here in Rappler, lamenting what I saw as an unfortunate draw.
“The way I see it there was no harder Pot 4 away game than Nepal, and that is exactly what we landed. The altitude and the travel make this game a true banana skin. Almost every other Pot 4 away game would have been a short hop away at sea level against a beatable team. True, an away match at Bhutan would have also meant difficult travel and a match at high altitude, but the Bhutanese are probably weaker than Nepal.”
That was how I felt in January. Last weekend I wrote a preview to this game talking a lot about the altitude in Nepal, and two guys I really respect in Pinoy football, Mikee Carrion, (who was the match analyst on ABS-CBN S+A,) and ex-Kaya coach Maor Rozen, reassured me that it might not be an issue.
Rozen told me that up to 1500 meters above sea level, there is really nothing much to worry about with pro athletes. It's only higher than that where things become difficult. Carrion said that in South America some visiting teams to high-altitude matches sometimes deliberately come a day before so that their body doesn't have time to notice the thin air.
Plus the weather was startlingly balmy, around 21 degrees celsius at kickoff, 2:15 pm local time. The sun was out too. I guess autumns in Nepal are really pleasant most of the time.
By kickoff I was really liking our chances. Conditions seemed perfect for us to win.
But it wasn't to be. The ground looked very firm on TV, and we seemed to have difficulty controlling the weight of our passes and first touches in the thin air. Nepal looked very organized in the back and limited our chances.
The Azkals were not afraid to press in the first half. Perhaps we paid for it with some tiredness in the second? I would love to ask the players.
In the end, luck was not on our side as two chances were cleared off the line and Carlie De Murga's last-gasp header clanged off the woodwork.
Misagh Bahadoran was not fielded, and that likely means he just didn't have the fitness in the eyes of Dooley to get a run-out. Curt Dizon did well up top, stinging the palms of the Nepalese goalie.
So in the end, this did turn out to be a tough game. Nepal is 60 places below us on the FIFA rankings, and they had nothing else but pride to play for. But it didn't matter much as we just couldn't crack them.
We were without some key cogs but for me there was one injured Azkal that we missed the most....
We really needed Manny Ott
The center of the park was not the creative engine it could have been on Tuesday. Paul Mulders, Phil Younghusband, and Kevin Ingreso were unable to rule the middle third. There were too main aimless direct balls.
Manny Ott, Mike's kuya, is out for a few months with an injured knee. We sorely needed his composure, passing touch and vision. He is that rare player with the ability to read defenses and break them down.
Here's hoping that the Ceres man somehow makes it back for the March game against Tajikistan, and that the other injured Azkal talisman, Javi Patiño, is upfield to receive his passes.
Let's take a look at where we stand
On Tuesday night Yemen and Tajikistan played to a 0-0 draw as well in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. I see this as a good development because it keeps both sides below us in the standings.
The Pinoys have 9 points after two wins and three draws to lead the group. Yemen and Tajikistan are at 7 points. Two-point Nepal are out of the running for UAE in 2019.
The top two in the group progress. On March 27 we tangle with Tajikistan at home and Yemen and Nepal play in the last set of group games. I gather that the favorite to host the match is Panaad again, but there has been no official announcement yet.
A win against Tajikistan and we are top of the group and punch tickets to UAE. A draw will be good enough too. That gives us 10 points, and leaves the Tajiks stuck at 8, safely below us. In that scenario, Tajikistan needs Nepal to beat Yemen to give the Central Asians passage.
It is still possible for us to qualify even if we lose. That brings Tajikistan to 10 and leaves us at 9. Nepal needs to either draw or beat the Yemenis, though, for us to back into the final stage in 2019.
The nightmare scenario is if we fall to Tajikistan and Yemen beats Nepal. That leaves us with 9 points, a point less than the other two and out of the AFC Asian Cup.
But aside from that possibility we are actually still in good shape. This nil-nil may not satisfy, but it nudges us ever so closer to the promised land of UAE in 2019.
With no more Azkals play for the rest of the year, we need to give the PFL a look
The first Philippines Football League season is nearing the finish line. The clubs in the four-team playoffs are already known. FC Meralco Manila, Ceres Negros, Kaya Makati and Global Cebu will participate, and it's only seedings that are at stake for the last few regular season games. For more information check out the league's Facebook page here. (https://www.facebook.com/PhilippinesFootballLeagueOfficial/)
The two-legged semis will take place on December 2, 3, 9 and 10. The one-game final happens on December 16. The action should be intense.
The Azkals may be done playing for their country this year, but you can now check out your favorite Pinoy footballers battle for their clubs.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH. – Rappler.com