The Philippines has game changers
Misagh Bahadoran scored his fifth international goal on Wednesday, November 9, drawing him level with Denis Wolf in my unofficial goal count of the modern era.
It was a rather lucky one on two counts: Iain Ramsay's offload to a streaking Bahadoran was behind him, so Misagh was briefly encumbered. His return pass was blocked, but it fell kindly back to the Global star, who concluded the series of fortunate events with a classy left-footed volley past the Kyrgyz goalie. The 65th minute strike was the only one of a fairly tight contest. (READ: Azkals-Kyrgyzstan preview: Fitness a concern)
Bahadoran hurt his adductor, a muscle in the thigh, against North Korea last month. He had to sit out for a few weeks to rest it. When I chatted with him at training on Friday he admitted he wasn't near full fitness, hence the non-start and entry at half time. The fact that he scored a goal coming from sick bay gives us a huge boost.
Ramsay too can be lauded for his part in the goal. If I recall correctly he also caused the turnover in the midfield that led to the strike.
Stephan Schröck wowed the crowd with a brilliant 50-yard solo run late in the second half into the Kyrgyz box. The move ended with a yellow card for simulating a foul, but that does not take much away from his audacity and pace.
Schröck is 30. The temples are starting to gray. He is getting to be at that age where the end of his prime is nigh. But on Wednesday he proved he still has a lot to offer the team. This will be his first Suzuki Cup and he just might present some real problems with opposing defenses.
The presence of these guys, plus the imminent inclusion of striker Javier Patiño, means we do have some weapons. If they gel correctly, we could be a real force in two weekends' time.
Sato at center back worked. But....
I was with the match commentators, Jing Jamlang and Marielle Benitez, before kick off. When the starting eleven was announced, the three of us were puzzled as to who would be at centerback beside Amani Aguinaldo. I thought Kevin Ingreso would get the nod. Marielle thought Thomas Dooley might go with three at the back.
But instead, Daisuke Sato played center back alongside with Aguinaldo. Martin Steuble started at right back and Ingreso was tasked with shoring up the left flank.
Sato may be small in stature but he has the pace needed at this level to chase down the likes of Teerasil Dangda and Irfan Bachdim in the Suzuki. After leaking 6 goals in the last two matches, its good to see our defense pitch a shutout with the help of Sato.
But here's the rub. Sato told me on Monday (I ran into him in Greenbelt), that he is not a lock to be released by his Romanian club for the Suzuki Cup. Remember, the ASEAN championship does not take place during FIFA international dates, so clubs are not obliged to release.
Sato's presence in this friendly could be an indication that negotiations with Azkals management and CSM Politehnica Iasi are going well, and he could be allowed to play.
We ought to presume that Sato will need to return to Romania this weekend. Then he will have to dash back for the Singapore game on the 19th. If we have Sato then, it will be a travel-weary, severely jet-lagged iteration of him. Will he be at the top of his game?
The finals of the Suzuki are on December 14 and 17. If we reach that phase, it will be an almost month-long tournament for us. One wonders if Iasi will be best pleased with having one of their defenders out for a month in midseason.
Having Sato in the Suzuki Cup would be a godsend. But he just might take us halfway to a promised land and then have to depart.
The experiment with Phil Younghusband in holding midfield has yet to pay full dividends.
There was one play last night that illustrated the pitfalls of having the country's all-time leading striker in a defensive role.
It was in the first half. The Kyrgyz attacker, I think Akhidin Israilov, either dispossessed Phil or eluded him with the ball on the right flank, then charges downfield. Phil, instead of hunting him down, sort of lets the man go and cuts inside instead. Sato, was the nearest guy but he was already a few yards away and also nearer the center of the field. Israilov thus ventured unmolested downfield. Fortunately the attack in the end did not prosper.
A true holding mid would have followed Israilov on the play. But Phil's instincts are more attuned to attacking than defending.
Last Friday Dooley explained to me why Phil is stationed deep under him. He feels that Phil's size allows him to shield the ball and hold possession in that area. He also is able to unspool long but remarkably accurate passes from deep. The coach also admitted that he prefers to have speedier players up front.
Right now the jury is still out on this move. For all we know, Phil will make two or three assists for goals from that spot in the Suzuki and coach Thomas will look like a genius. It remains to be seen.
We need to make a full-court press to get the word out about Suzuki Cup.
We are a little over a week away from the Suzuki Cup group stage. Attendance on Wednesday in Rizal Memorial was disappointing, and according to the Ticketworld website, only one of the matches in the group is selling briskly, and believe it or not, it's the Singapore versus Indonesia game in Rizal Memorial on November 25, the one that will kickoff at the same time as Philippines vs Thailand in Bulacan.
I suspect that awareness for the tournament is low. Someone even tweeted me last night when she saw my tweets about the game, thinking that the Suzuki had already begun.
Every single Azkals fan should do their bit to raise the profile of this competition. We are hosting the group stage for the first time ever, (we have hosted only a qualifying competition in the past), and we need big crowds to spur our team on. Lets all post about the games on our social media accounts, and personally invite folks, fans and non-fans alike, to watch.
The Suzuki Cup is a big deal. We need a strong showing to help the grow the game here. Each one of us needs to do our part.
Once again with feeling, here are details of the matches.
AFF Suzuki Cup Group A Schedule
Philippine Sports Stadium, Bocaue, Bulacan
Saturday, November 19
Philippines vs Singapore
Tuesday, November 22
Philippines vs Indonesia
Friday, November 25
Philippines vs Thailand
All matches kick off at 8:00 pm