Azkals vs Uzbekistan postgame: More questions than answers
MANILA, Philippines – Here are some thoughts following the Azkals' defeat to Uzbekistan.
Injuries were a factor in Thomas Dooley's big personnel call at the back, which did not prosper. The coach had a bunch of experienced defenders in sick bay on Tuesday. Rob Gier is recovering from meniscus tear surgery. Simone Rota is out with cracked ribs. And Juani Guirado tweaked something in the warmups before the Maldives friendly (which he was originally supposed to start in), and apparently was not fit to start on Tuesday.
I wondered aloud in my last article if Luke Woodland, who just planed in from a trial with Red Bull New York on Sunday, would be an option at centerback. In hindsight, perhaps Dooley could have gone with Jerry Lucena in the middle and maybe slide Aguinaldo or Kevin Ingreso to right back, or perhaps even start Stephan Schrock on the flank. Instead, the coach played Woodland out of position in the middle after only two training sessions with the team, and after flying in from 12 time zones away. Woodland is primarily a midfielder.
It's difficult to pillory Dooley for this. For all we know, had we gone with someone else, the result could have been the same or even worse. The coach deserves some of benefit of the doubt. But the halftime switch – Aguinaldo for Woodland – spoke volumes. Coaches almost never sub out central defenders unless there is an injury. Woodland misjudged the high ball on the third goal by Sardor Rashidov.
The omission of Stephan Schrock from the starting lineup was the surprise of the evening. In my experience, when a coach leaves out a very good player from the starting 11, 90% of the time it is because of a fitness issue. Maybe Schrock was carrying something, but he didn't look it in the second half.
Coaches at times overthink things. Perhaps Dooley was guilty of that. Or perhaps there is more than meets the eye with the decision. We don't know; Dooley has the best view. All we know is that Schrock is a game-changer who arguably plays at a higher level with his club than anyone else on the team. His cheeky, opportunistic, free kick goal was a welcome counterbalance to a dreary night for Filipino fans.
As long as he is healthy, Schrock should be a starter. We will never know how things might have gone if he played a full 90.
What now for the 3-4-3 formation? Tuesday's game followed the script from last year's Suzuki Cup group stage. Back in December, the Azkals won stylishly against Laos and Indonesia. Needing just a point in the last group game against the Vietnamese in Hanoi to seal top spot in the group, Dooley stood on the throttle and went for the jugular with an expansive game plan. The result? The home team was 3-0 up by the 58th minute. A goal by Paul Mulders at the hour mark was our only reply and we finished second in the group and thus played Thailand, not Malaysia, in the semifinals.
On Tuesday, history repeated itself. Fresh from two startling wins against Bahrain and Yemen, the team was riding high and once again trotted out a 3-4-3 against the mighty Uzbeks, only to get mowed down.
A 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation (it is supposed to be 5-3-2 on defense), is rare in football. Perhaps we can see why. Dooley faces a tough call in October. Does he stick to his guns with his scheme or revert back to a more conventional 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2?
Also, is playing Phil Younghusband so deep in the center of the park a good idea? He was beaten on the first goal. Perhaps Phil needs to go higher up where he can do what he does best – create and score goals – instead of having to track down on defense, which is not his specialty.
Uzbekistan woke up. This team fell behind 4-0 at the half in Pyongyang before losing 4-2 , then only managed a 1-0 win versus Yemen at home. The Philippines could sniff some blood going into this game. But at last, Uzbekistan played like the Pot One team in Group H. The ferocity and accuracy of their strikes on goal was a sight to behold.
I can only blame Neil Etheridge for the first goal that slithered through his legs. In fairness to Neil, the ball used last night, the Molten Vantaggio, is very smooth and shiny, unlike the Nike and Adidas balls that are rougher and less slippery. The Vantaggio is a good ball that has that FIFA “A” stamp, but it is a nightmare for keepers on moist evenings.
Etheridge is off the hook for the other goals. Each of them was brilliant, especially Rashidov's late curler that the Walsall netminder could only get fingertips to but not keep out.
The ability to score from outside the box is something every team needs. Uzbekistan showed us the value of that on Tuesday night.
There is now added pressure to get points in October. The Azkals now must find a way to scrape together at least a point against Korea DPR on October 8, then a draw or a win in Bahrain 5 days later. The qualifying campaign is now teetering on a precipice as we are third in the group now, level with Uzbekistan on points but adrift of them in goal difference. Remember only the top team makes it to the next round for sure, and only the 4 best second-placers progress.
Is having all of our home games in the Philippine Sports Stadium a good idea? I say no. The announced attendance last night was 7500, about a 1000-spectator improvement over the June game against Bahrain. That's decent, but in my opinion, had the game been played in Rizal Memorial, it would have been an easy sellout.
The only reason for playing in PSS is that it's new and it has a nice grass field. The larger capacity is moot and academic, since we cannot even pack it for a game of this importance.
Yes, players like playing on grass. It's easier on the joints and over a long season, is better for the health of professional players. But most of these Azkals play on the Rizal Memorial carpet every week. One more game there is not going to kill them.
Yes, Rizal Memorial is grungy and badly in need of renovations, from the dressing rooms to the lights to the bleachers. But at the end of the day, since it's a short walk from the Vito Cruz LRT station, it is the more fan-friendly venue compared to the PSS in faraway Bulacan. And what is the spectacle of football without fans?
Going to PSS, even if you have a car, is a real chore. Although I waited until midnight to leave last night, the drive home to Mandaluyong still took more than an hour and 15 minutes, passing through the Mindanao Avenue exit since I needed to drop a friend off in Commonwealth.
This issue can also be looked at in another light: was it correct to put an artificial turf in Rizal in the first place? If I would have my way, I would have put a carpet on another venue, like University of Makati instead, then kept Rizal as grass. Then the UFL could play their quadruple-headers in Umak every week without fear of the pitch getting ruined, and Rizal is saved for once-a-week matches and national team games. It could have been our Wembley. But the PSC controls RMS and the Makati local government unit appears to handle Umak, so it's hard to coordinate that.
In my opinion, holding Azkals games in PSS is okay under the following circumstances: a) the game is on a weekend, b) the NLEX-SLEX connector road is finished, c) the ticket prices are reasonable, and d) there is affordable and reliable bus transport to and from the venue. None of those conditions were met last night.
Someone dropped the ball on the bus service offered by the PFF. Three different people tweeted me that they paid for bus tickets on the 6:30 pm shuttle from Trinoma and the bus never showed up.
There was other fan angst as well, as the Ultras Filipinas supporters group were barred from bringing in their drums but supposedly the traveling supporters from Uzbekistan were not.
At any rate, a check of the official FIFA site reveals that the venues for the next two home qualifiers for the Azkals, November 12 against Yemen and versus Korea DPR in March, have yet to be decided. I am hoping that one or both of those matches happen in Rizal Memorial, for the sake of the fans.
This qualifying campaign is not over. There is no reason to press the panic button just yet. The Azkals have circled the wagons and rebounded from adversity before. If we get 4 points in the October trip and beat Yemen again, then we are right back in the thick of things. But no doubt, Thomas Dooley and his players must return to the drawing board. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
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