[Last Lap] A gallant silver football medal for the Azkals
No one expected the Philippines to defeat Palestine in the finals of the AFC Challenge Cup. This is not the same team the Azkals beat 4-3 two years ago and the Palestine defense, led by their goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh who hurt a finger in one of the earlier matches, had yet to concede a goal in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup.
The Palestine side were taller and quick on the mark. They were heftier and they showed it to best effect with rugged defense when the Philippines put pressure for 20 minutes after giving up a goal from a superb free kick by Ashraf Nu’man Alfawagrah which sailed to the upper left spot of the goal box past hurtling goalie Ronald Muller in the 58th minute.
As the minutes ticked, the Azkals blended craft and daring, the Azkals bored into Palestine’s imposing defense to tie the match. A foul or two may have eluded the referees, causing team manager Dan Palami to blow his top. Palami was ejected on the 68th minute and Patrick Riechelt drew a yellow card for complaining.
Phil Younghusband’s free kick in the 74th was cleared by Saleh; Reichelt pounced on the loose ball but Saleh denied a goal. In the 86th, wily Daisuke Sato crossed the ball from about 30 meters and Saleh stretched to his right to clear it. In the ensuing scuffle, sub OJ Porteria went down and called for a foul which went unheeded by officials.
The Azkals paid dearly for their uncharacteristic loose marking on Palestine’s attackers. The Azkals kept a bit of distance so they could follow their man if he chose to go elsewhere, but this allowed Palestine’s forwards to smoothly flick those 1-2 passes. The passes found the open man and Muller stopped four shots after 30 minutes.
Sixteen attempts from Palestine against 9 for the Philippines tell the story. Palestine had 5 open shots in the first half and Muller, jumping like a salmon leaping upstream, stopped them all. Though the Azkals limited Palestine to just 3 open tries in the second, de Jong’s tackle on Alfawagrah which was the only defensive miscue that ultimately proved decisive.
Palestine crowded their half and tightly marked Philippine attackers. The Filipinos grasped any attacking chance but were undone by hurried shots and some rugged defense by Palestine.
The few chances the Philippines had like crosses from Jerry Lucena and Sato, who also showed tenacity in defense by sometimes grasping at the jersey of Palestinian forwards, were not pounced upon by the forwards as their foes crowded the goalmouth.
Coach Thomas Dooley waited for the second half to insert Lucena, who has shone in previous games. This may have deprived the Philippines of some chances in the first half.
Having been stuck at the lower half of ASEAN football for decades before the Azkals burst on the scene in 2010, the Palestine result is a letdown for thousands of soccer fans thirsting for a breakthrough win.
But the path to excellence gets tougher with every climb. The skill and toughness of teams the Philippines faced in the AFC Challenge Cup were at a high level. And countries like Palestine and Afghanistan take great pride in their football, which has unified them in times of strife.
Because the Azkals fought gallantly, the Philippines’ silver in the AFC Challenge Cup is like a gold medal for a basketball-crazy country where people have to be reminded there are diamonds in the rough like young tall defender Amani Aguinaldo from Davao.
Dooley was named coach of the Philippine national team in February. He has a one-year contract to make things happen. Some decisions on the team will be made. But let us enjoy for a moment how the Azkals made Filipinos proud early Saturday playing the beautiful game. – Rappler.com