Reality Check: Azkals-Bahrain postgame thoughts

Bob Guerrero

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Reality Check: Azkals-Bahrain postgame thoughts
The Philippines' hopes of qualification were dealt a serious blow against Bahrain. Here's a breakdown of what went wrong and what their qualification hopes look like now

MANILA, Philippines – Despite 2-0 loss, the performance was not too shabby. There is a big difference between a team’s performance and the result of the game. The result was obviously not what we wanted but the performance was mostly alright. 

The Azkals battled Bahrain to a fair stalemate in the first half, with Phil Younghusband and Stephan Schrock both having decent shots at getting the opening goal. Neither side dominated, and the play was fairly open and balanced. 

But it all unraveled in that 10-minute spell when Isa Moosa was allowed to ghost into the 6-yard box unperturbed to dink in the opener. Mohammed Husain takes much of the credit for the goal. He makes a run behind Stephane Palla that draws Amani Aguinaldo to him. Palla chases him also, freeing up Moosa, who is not picked up by Daisuke Sato. Husain finds him and it’s an easy finish, far too easy for this level. 

Then 10 minutes later a free kick of jaw-dropping brilliance from Ismail Abdul Latif sealed the deal. The Philippines looked leggy and disoriented after that.

So in reality it was just one missed defensive assignment and one YouTube-worthy free kick that did us in. Was the game plan wrong? Hard to say so. Dooley played Schrock and Phil up top and they did look threatening. They just couldn’t find the net. The change in the fullbacks (Palla and Steuble), and the switch to a more vanilla 4-4-2 might have raised some eyebrows, but in the end that wasn’t the reason for our defeat. If anything, Dooley could be blamed for over-tinkering his lineup, but even that is a difficult call.

Bahrain did what a solid, experienced, veteran team does: punish you harshly for relatively small errors. 

Maybe playing Phil Younghusband out of position for so long damaged his confidence a bit. Phil had 3 great chances to get his 43rd international goal on Tuesday. He hit a second-minute left-footer a bit dirty, headed wide later on in the half, and couldn’t beat the keeper stretched-out for a looping ball in the second half. 

For the first time in a while Phil was truly deployed in attack in this game. But maybe all of those games in central/defensive midfield blunted his poacher’s instinct. When he’s in form, Phil gets at least two of those three chances on frame.

The missed header also illustrates something about Phil Younghusband: he is really not a target striker. Phil likes to operate a bit deep in the formation, (as an attacking mid or second striker,) where he can create with his passing touch and vision. Phil has rarely scored with his head, and seems best playing off a guy who has aerial prowess, like an Ian Araneta or Javier Patiño. 

We’d love to see Phil bounce back in the next game, but it appears it won’t happen. A poor yellow card late in the game, along with a caution he received against Uzbekistan, means he should be in street clothes when we host Yemen on November 12. It’s another tough blow.

The yellow reminds me of Aly Borromeo’s head-scratching yellow late in a won game against Sri Lanka in World Cup qualifying in 2011. That caution meant he was unable to play in the first match of the Kuwait series, which we lost 3-0.

It wasn’t Phil’s best night. Let’s just hope that the injured Patiño will suit up in a few weeks time to make up for his absence. 

We got well and truly shafted by the schedule-makers. Look it up. The Philippines was the only team in Group H that did not get a two-game home stand in one FIFA window in this qualifying campaign. Bahrain finished their home stand on Tuesday after stumbling to the Uzbeks last week. Korea DPR also played two home games in this window. 

Not only did we not have the benefit of a nice home series, we also had the worst road trip: this epic slog from Korea to the Middle East in a span of five days. It was a big, big ask for this team to get even one win from this trip, especially with the endless layovers. 

These scheduling quirks are often unavoidable with an odd-numbered group that ensures one team always has a bye. But after getting the short end of the stick with a horrible draw into a Group of Death, this additional bit of lousy fortune was one we could ill afford.

The qualifying picture for the World Cup looks bleak. The Philippines remains third in Group H with 7 points. Uzbekistan is ahead of us with 9 and has a game in hand. North Korea is in pole position at 13 points, only 3 less than our maximum. 

For us to somehow wriggle into the next round as a top second-placer, we need to a) win out with Biblical scorelines against Yemen, Uzbekistan, and Korea DPR, b) hope Yemen and Bahrain play like Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain to take a bite out of the top dogs, and c), hope that everyone in the other groups draws each other in low-scoring matches. It really doesn’t look promising. 

The good news is, we are in okay shape for the next round of Asian Cup qualifying, which is also what this competition is for. (All third placers and the best four fourth placers in the group, as well as the four worst runners-up, get into the next phase of Asian Cup qualifying. All the fifth-placers have a playoff to reach that phase.) 

This means the November 12 match against Yemen is vital. A win or draw completely eliminates the Yemenis from automatically garnering that qualifying stage slot. That will be a very good incentive to go all out for victory at Rizal Memorial. Yemen may be at the cellar of Group H, but they play everyone tough. Uzbekistan and Korea DPR only beat them 1-0 in their last encounters. 

Neil Etheridge rebounded well after getting shelled by Uzbekistan. The Walsall keeper was not at fault in either goal, and he produced a lovely save off a volley in the second half. I also loved that brave punch-out in the first half, where he ended up decking a Bahraini defender. Etheridge probably gets my Man of the Match award.

The team must circle the wagons in preparation for November 12. The World Cup dream is fading fast, but there is still plenty to play for. – 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.

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