Postgame thoughts: Azkals 3, Fiji 2; More questions than answers
MANILA, Philippines – On Thursday, March 22, the Philippines took a 3-0 lead against a visiting Fijian team in Rizal Memorial. A decisive victory in the friendly was denied thanks to two late goals from the Pacific Islanders. Here are points of discussion for Azkals fans.
We learned little about the squad that will play Tajikistan
Truth be told, this might go down as little more than a training match for the Azkals. In a sense Fiji wasn't the best tuneup game. The Pacific Islanders were not technically great. They gave the ball away so many times in the middle of the park. Their tactics seemed to consist of sitting back deep and counterattacking.
Man-for-man the Philippines were superior. We should have been. Apparently the Fijian national team is composed of many semi-pro players who have day jobs. My commentary partner, Cedelf Tupas revealed that the Fiji head coach, Christophe Gamel, was unable to get some players on his squad because some couldn't get off work. The Pinoy team is fully professional.
I doubt very much that Tajikistan, even playing on the road on Tuesday, will play that conservatively. They put 3 goals past us the last time we met and will respect, but not fear, the home side.
We also didn't get to know much about Michael Falkesgaard, the new Fil-Danish keeper. He had little work in his first half of play.
Tuesday could be decided by 3 players who did not play any part of Thursday's game. Goalie Neil Etheridge arrives tomorrow. Javi Patino, as long as he is in the neighborhood of 70% fit, will at the very least come on as a sub against Tajikistan. Despite a fine outing at left back, Jeff Christiaens likely gives way for Daisuke Sato, who flew in from Romania on Wednesday night, March 21, and, since he was likely jet-lagged, was an unused substitute.
So there is little need to panic. The situation will be completely different on the 27th.
Fiji may not be the greatest team but they did show heart, character, and fighting spirit with those two late goals. They probably did us a bit of a favor by giving us some late drama. That was the closest to a dress rehearsal for Tuesday that the side experienced. It was good for the boys to experience some pressure.
Some players gave a good case for their inclusion in the starting 11
Thomas Dooley, the Azkals coach, has been notorious for his counter-intuitive team selections. This match might be the hardest to call. It was obvious that he wanted to give a bunch of his players significant time as he maxed out his allotted 6 subs with plenty of time to spare.
Hikaru “Pika” Minegishi showed his skill and opportunism with a fine maiden goal. Mike Ott and Iain Ramsay flourished in the flanks, The centerback pairing of Dennis Villanueva and Carlie De Murga were effective at least for the first 75 minutes. Kevin Ingreso's dazzling volley goal will make opponents sit up and take notice.
Dooley has plenty of tools to play with. A real embarrassment of riches. Goals can come from anywhere on the formation. (Simone Rota hit the woodwork on a foray upfield in the first half.) It will be very interesting to see who he comes up with for the Tajikistan game.
The Philippines does not have a monopoly on subpar refereeing
Everyone complains about refereeing in this country. On Thursday we saw how foreign refs can also make big errors. That penalty that Misagh Bahadoran won? Completely bogus. As bad as any lousy call I have seen here from a local referee.
If anything, it was Misagh who bumped into the Fijian defender, and yet it was the Pinoy who crumpled into the ground. It was a very well-won simulation.
So before we bemoan the lack of skilled refs here, let us be reminded that the problem is not confined to us. Let us hope for good refereeing on Tuesday.
Goalkeeping is so much more than just being tall
Fiji's keeper, Epeni Loaniceva, looks about 6'7” . He has an incredibly imposing presence in the box. And yet on both goals in open play he dove for the ball and was unable to stop the shot. His reflexes were not quite up to speed.
Height is a massive advantage in this position. But agility, athleticism, and reflexes are also important. A more agile keeper might have stopped one of those shots. In the other game I commentated on Thursday, UE's Frank Rieza made an astonishing diving save of an NU shot into the top corner that looked destined to be a goal.
So if you are a young but undersized goalkeeper, don't despair. Make up for your height disadvantage by working on the rest of your game.
Fiji's fans taught us how to support a national team
They must have been around 30-40 strong, the Fijian contingent last night. Decked out in colorful attire and bringing Fijian flags, they made a great racket throughout the contest, more than the Filipino fans much of the time. When they would shout “Fiji,” some Azkals supporters would shout “Azkals” as a counterpoint.
At the final whistle the Fijian fans applauded their team and celebrated as if they had won. The fightback from their boys was more than enough. They feted the squad, cheering them on for another ten minutes.
These Fijian fans understand that watching a team play is a symbiotic, interactive experience. The team and fans both work and feed off one another. The energy must go back-and-forth.
This attitude is lacking in Philippine sports. You maybe see it in some Ateneo – La Salle games and in Ginebra games, but it's hard to find elsewhere.
Filipino fans are, in my observation, too passive. What I see in many Azkals and Gilas games is a tendency to sit in your seat and only get worked up to cheer if the team makes a run. It shouldn't be the case. We need our fans to give a real 12th man advantage, I hope that somehow, some way, fan culture changes. Our teams could use the help.
The Azkals could also benefit from a big crowd on Tuesday. We kick off against Tajikistan at 7:30 pm in Rizal memorial. A draw or a win and we book our slot for the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates next year. A loss and we still sneak through if Nepal draws or beats Yemen on the same day.
Get your tickets here for as low as P100 at SM Ticket outlets.
The game will also be aired on Liga and Liga HD. A stream will be provided.
The future of Philippine football will get a huge boost if we get the right result. And you, the fans can make a difference.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
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