Azkals get it done against Nepal, but questions remain

Bob Guerrero

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Azkals get it done against Nepal, but questions remain
The Philippines gets its AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign off to a winning start with a 4-1 victory, but many questions remain


The Azkals defeated Nepal on Tuesday to get a big 3 points in their quest to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup final stage in the UAE in 2019. Phil Younghusband overcame an early penalty miss to score twice, once from the penalty spot and another in open play, with Iain Ramsay and Javi Patiño both finding the scoresheet. The game was a mixed bag in front of 1,700 spectators in Rizal Memorial. Let’s break it down. 

Javier Patiño was my clear Man Of The Match. The Fil-Spaniard figured in both of the first two goals, if I recall. (I mean, either the goal or the move that caused the penalty.) He also drilled in a superb second-half strike into the bottom corner. 

I hear that Patigol is struggling to get playing time in Henan Jianye in China. Perhaps this is his way of showing his team that he has a lot to offer. 

Patiño just has that eye for the pass, a feel for where other players are going, and that game-reading skill that so many players just don’t possess.

In the post-game press conference Phil Younghusband gushed about how great it is to play with Patiño, whose English has improved greatly. Phil now says Javi cracks jokes in English and that onfield communication with him is now much better. This is a far cry from 2013, when I first met Patiño in the PFF and needed to speak to him with my Tarzan Spanish because his English was virtually nonexistent. 

Let’s hope that Patiño grows even more comfortable in the side and continues to create for the rest of this campaign, which promises to get harder.

There’s still a lot of shuffling in the formation. Junior Muñoz was left off the starting lineup because the team originally thought he was not eligible due to a paperwork issue. Dooley thus installed Carlie De Murga at right back. When Muñoz was cleared at around lunchtime on Tuesday, Dooley decided to keep De Murga in the lineup. That was a right call since he probably didn’t want to demoralize a good player who had battled back from injury so bravely to return to the Azkals after two years. 

But De Murga tweaked his groin, so Muñoz came in for him anyway.

Daisuke Sato returned to the centerback position from left back. He played alongside Amani Aguinaldo there in one of the friendlies just before the Suzuki Cup. Sato is probably one of the smallest centerbacks in international play, but he has just about every other tool needed for that position. With Sato in the middle, Jeff Christiaens took the spot at left back and erstwhile centerback Dennis Villanueva scooted up to holding midfield. 

James Younghusband, in a “why didn’t I think of that” moment, was pushed inward into central attacking mid. I like it. James can finish, and as he gets older may not have the pace needed for wing play. In the center of the park he can be an aerial threat who can dish as well. 

Iain Ramsay scored the third goal for the Azkals. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

With Manny Ott injured his brother came into the lineup at right wing, but had an ordinary evening. Kevin Ingreso was another player hurt and in street clothes in the stands. 

These lineup changes were mostly necessitated by injuries. It’s good that we can have players who can flit around the formation, but at some point it would be good to have a side that picks itself. This could be it, since the team did move the ball around well. They were quite patient in build up and largely eschewed the long ball. But corollary to this…. 

The defense must step up if we are to garner more results in our group. The Azkals switched off just before halftime and allowed Nepalese substitute Bishal Rai to give his team a lifeline with a splendid finish to keep them in the game at 3-1. It’s a well-known adage in football that teams must be wary of conceding just before the halftime break. It’s important that a team’s head is not yet in the tunnel when there is still time on the clock. 

Just before the match ended Neil Etheridge had to make a gorgeous reaction save on a free header then needed to clear up another attempt just seconds later.

Coach Thomas Dooley spoke in the postgame presscon about how the defense needed to get better and how the marking was wanting. He mentioned other lapses that went unpunished. Tajikistan and Yemen are solid squads who might not let us off the hook so easily. Our defense simply has to organize and be more aware against the tougher sides in the group. 

A word on Martin Steuble’s exit. Over the weekend it was reported that wide player Martin Steuble had parted ways with the side, replaced in the roster by Antonio Ugarte. One Azkal said it was because of a disagreement over playing time. These are the sort of distractions that can throw a wrench into a team’s preparations, but judging from the result, the Azkals weathered it well. The same player says team spirit is high, as it should be after a three-goal win.

I bet Steuble will be back soon. Dooley kissed and made up with Stephan Schrock once after they slagged each other off publicly in 2014. The coach and Steuble should be able to do the same. Martin is a handy player who has just been left out of the starting list because of a surfeit of midfielders.

The livestream didn’t cut it. Since I was at the match, I could not monitor the stream. It was fine last week against Malaysia, but apparently very ragged this Tuesday. Many fans complained of lags and blackouts. One fellow tweeted me in frustration that he missed two goals in the first half because of the stream conking out. 

Livestreaming is a great idea in countries with first-world Internet. In the Philippines it is a dicey proposition. There are simply too many things that can go wrong. The network at the stadium can bog down. The signal where fans are can also grind to a halt. Or somewhere in between things go haywire.

We sure could use TV coverage. But at the moment we do without.

Fact: last week’s NU-Adamson football match was aired nationwide on SD and HD, but the Azkals game, an Asian Cup qualifier, was not. But that’s how the world works. Sometimes life really is just rather strange and incomprehensible. 

I hope all Filipino fans can be patient. I believe that this team has a great chance of qualifying for the final stage in 2019. It will be a first for our country, and a truly compelling story. Maybe, hopefully, that will be enough to get the team back into our TV sets. 

Meanwhile, let’s mark our calendars. June 13, the Philippines versus Tajikistan in Dushanbe. A huge assignment on the road to UAE in 2019. – 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.

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