Azkals 1, Bahrain 3 postgame: No need to panic

MANILA, Philippines - The defense continues to be a work in progress. While the midfield and attacking line were largely unchanged from the last friendly, a win at Kyrgyzstan last week, the defense was shuffled around more than a deck of playing cards in a poker room. 

In Bishkek, Azkals coach Thomas Dooley had Neil Etheridge in goal, Daisuke Sato at left back, Amani Aguinaldo and Dennis Villanueva in the middle, and Martin Steuble out right. On Friday Patrick Deyto had the gloves, Steuble was shipped over to the left, Kenshiro Daniels inserted into right back and Luke Woodland supplanted Villanueva as Aguinaldo's central defense partner.

After 5 minutes we were already one goal down, thanks to Abubaker Khabir's first-time poke off a cross. When Khabir got his brace in the second half off a free header, it was almost a certainty that the visitors would win, Mike Ott's great goal notwithstanding.

The great teams seem to have a back 4 unit that is etched in stone into the start list for every match. The cohesion, organization and understanding in the defensive line, built over many games, is crucial to success. I recall that Global champion team from a few years back that had Val Kama and Angge Tresor-Guisso in the middle, I think Patrick Delon Yao on the left, and Jerry Barbaso at right back. The combination was there game in, game out. That team hardly ever conceded, and won the UFL.

The same could be said for UP's UAAP-winning men's squad this season. Ace Villanueva as sweeper-keeper, with Ian Clarino and Patxi Santos in front of him. Lou Rafanan shut down the left flank and Feb Baya patrolled the right. They played with that lineup almost every game and rarely leaked goals. Of course they won the UAAP title. The one game when Villanueva was hurt and Clarino out suspended was a loss to UST. 

The Azkals are far from having that kind of unit now. The defense has been a revolving door, and may continue to be so going forward, especially with Sato hurt and likely unavailable for the Suzuki anyway.

If you look at the Suzuki Cup campaigns from 2010 you will recall experienced, larger-than-life figures in central defense. Gier. Borromeo. Guirado. Sometimes Lucena. These gents were all of some stature both physically and figuratively. Rob Gier, especially, was the quintessential field general, barking out orders, rallying the troops, and bossing the defensive third. 

These men are all no longer with the side. If the Philippines will make another deep run into the Asean championship, a leader or leaders must emerge from our current crop of defenders. We may not be settled at the back now, and experimentation is still okay at this point, but we need to be by November 19.

On Monday against DPR Korea we could very well see another permutation of our back 4. Which brings me to the next point... 

Friendlies shouldn't be taken too seriously. Yes, we want to win. But we also need to use these friendlies to mix and match, tweak and tinker, before competitive games.

Bahrain seemed to send a young team. It was evident to me that they are looking to the future, with AFC Asian Cup qualifiers looming. It was only in the second half that vets like Faouzi Aaish came on. Dooley on the other hand, had the opposite strategy: start strong and then blood the youngsters in the second half. 

Having a good result is ideal, but a good performance is better.

Unfortunately the Philippines is in a unique situation. Other football countries have club leagues that attract a lot of attention and have a big following. Friendlies of the national team are often side shows to that. But in the Philippines, the Azkals are the only kind of Philippine football that most fans care about. So even a friendly gains so much media buzz. Suddenly Filipino fans, many of whom are new to the game, expect wins in every friendly. 

That's a difficult proposition, especially when we choose highly-ranked friendly opponents like Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, and DPR Korea. In choosing these teams we are saying that we want tough games, not crowd-pleasing easy wins.

The purpose of a friendly is to tinker and try new things, with winning being secondary, the columnist explains. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

The purpose of a friendly is to tinker and try new things, with winning being secondary, the columnist explains.

Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

So a 3-1 loss is not the end of the world. It's all a part of the process, and there's no reason to get all worked up. 

No Schröck in the game. But why? Arguably the Philippines' best player was all dressed up but had nowhere to go on Friday. He did not start and did not get his bib off even though we were allowed more than the customary 3 subs. Fitch Arboleda, Daniel Gadia, Paolo Bugas, and Mike Ott were all deemed more worthy of playing time than Stephan Schröck. 

Schröck was a surprise omission in the team for Kyrgyzstan, but rejoined the team last weekend. In that brief exile Schröck was certainly not hurt, because he starred for Ceres in the UFL. 

We are not privy to the goings-ons behind the scenes. All we know is that Schröck has had his contretemps with Dooley in the past. Maybe the midfielder picked up a knock in training. It's hard to speculate. 

What I'm pretty sure of is this: we play DPR Korea on Monday and for sure the side will not want to go 0-2 in a home stand. I would be very surprised in Dooley does not field Schröck on Monday, Perhaps he might even start. 

Mike Ott is the new star. But will we have him in the Suzuki? Mike Ott had the perfect debut with a sensational goal off a Martin Steuble cross. Manny Ott's kid brother has introduced himself to Azkals fans in a big way. 

Mike plays for the second team of Nurnberg in the Gemran fourth tier. It's nice to see him in action now but one wonders if he will be available for the Suzuki Cup, which doesn't happen on FIFA international dates. 

Maybe since his team is not in the upper echelons, Nurnberg can be persuaded to give him time off in November and December. But it's a tough ask. The Group stage is from November 19 to 25. The AFF championship home and away semis are in the first week of December and the finals finish onDecember 17. 

At the very least, we should be happy that Mike is now a great option for AFC Asian Cup qualifiers next year. 

The UAAP kids get their chance. The match finished with five UAAP alumni from four different schools. Patrick Deyto from DLSU, Paolo Bugas and Amani Aguinaldo from FEU, (Amani played just one year for the Tams senior team), Fitch Arboleda from Stallion, and Daniel Gadia from UP. Gadia, the reigning UAAP MVP, like Mike Ott, earned his first full senior cap. 

The kids put in decent shifts, although none could really make a huge impact in the game. Arboleda had one shot on goal that was blocked. 

But what's important is that they were given a taste of high-level international football, which will hold them in good stead going forward. Unlike Mike Ott, Ramsay, and even Luke Woodland, these guys will definitely be available for the upcoming Suzuki, as well as the next few editions. 

But even more precious is the fact that hundreds, maybe thousands of young footballers all over the country can take them as inspiration. That the national team is not simply the domain of players from abroad. Any young player from here can make it to the pinnacle of the game in the Philippines. It only takes talent, hard work, sacrifice, and dedication. Props to coach Thomas for sending them into the fray. 

But now the focus is on Monday, and a win against DPR that the fans deserve.

 

Philippines vs DPR Korea

8 pm, October 10

Rizal Memorial Football Stadium

Telecast on ABS-CBN S+A at 9 pm

 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH. – Rappler.com