Azkals vs North Korea postgame: The sweetest of victories

The Azkals defeated a North Korean side that had played in the World Cup just 6 years ago, 3-2, on a last minute score by Iain Ramsay on Tuesday, March 29 at Rizal Memorial Stadium. Here are some thoughts on the match from Bob Guerrero. 

Dooley may have earned a contract renewal with several brilliant moves. Once the final whistle blew, Thomas Dooley was technically no longer the Azkals coach. But he has made a strong case for a new contract with this triumph, which was built on a series of gutsy calls that all paid off. 

Dooley didn't start Iain Ramsay. That was one of the eye-brow raisers when the start list came out. But when the Fil-Aussie trotted onto the field at the half for Luke Woodland and eventually scored the winner, it all made sense. 

It was a fairly cool summer night in Rizal Memorial by our standards, but to the North Koreans, it must have been a blast furnace. This heat is something they don't deal with often, and the visitors wilted in the end, surrendering two late goals.

 

Having a strong, quick and fresh wing player like Ramsay was the last thing the Korean defense wanted to see late in the game. By then their tongues were flapping halfway down their shirts. No wonder Ramsay was all alone for the third goal. He still had the legs while the Koreans were gassed. 

Misagh Bahadoran wears the number 9 shirt, which is traditionally allocated to big, muscular center forwards who are skilled in the air. But Bahadoran is more of a winger, rather than the man at the apex of the formation. He has played as a center forward at club level with Global with some success, but on Tuesday he struggled to deal with the towering Korean centerbacks, So Kyong Jin and Ri Yong Chol. Of course he scored the opener off the rebound off Javi Patiño's shot, and has 3 qualifying goals now under his belt, so full credit to him. But Bahadoran's speed is better utilized on the flanks. 

James Younghusband came in late for Misagh as a like-for-like swap. Although James is also a wide player, he makes a fine center forward too because of his aerial prowess, (he is actually a better header of the ball than his younger brother), and his height, which Bahadoran lacks. 

A few minutes after he came on James very nearly connected on a header off a cross. That was a ball that the shorter Bahadoran would never have gotten a sniff at.

And then James figured in the equalizer, dishing to Patiño who offloaded to Miguel Tanton who artfully backheeled to Manny Ott for the finish.

Ah, Miguel Tanton. A star is born. The Californian from Kaya was known only to the diehard Pinoy football fans a few weeks ago. But some solid shifts in 3 AFC Cup games for Kaya caught Dooley's eye, and he was a surprise inclusion for the squad. With OJ Porteria suspended, that paved the way to get his first international start. It's a debut he won't forget as he assisted unselfishly on Ott's goal.

Dooley seems to have an eye not only for talent, but also making the right in-game adjustments. 

The coach is apparently done with the unorthodox 3-5-2/5-3-2 and served up what looked like a 4-2-3-1. This is a good, solid formation that can be defensive with the two holding mids, but can also harness the attacking force of the two wingbacks. It's good to see that Dooley is flexible and willing to change when things aren't going well. Prior to Tuesday, the Philippines had gone 3 qualifiers without a goal.

Will Dooley get a new contract that keeps him in the Philippines until the Suzuki Cup? It would be rather odd if he doesn't. He has cajoled this depleted side to a come-from-behind win against a nation that was in the World Cup Finals just 6 years ago. 

Among a crowded list of candidates, Patiño and Ott emerge as the most irreplaceable. Almost everyone was an unsung hero on Tuesday. Amani Aguinaldo tidied up well. Daisuke Sato was especially threatening marauding forward in the second half. Etheridge served up his customary big saves. But Manny Ott and Javier Patiño are the most valuable players for me. 

Manuel Ott, seen after scoring the team's second goal, proved himself to be irreplaceable for the Azkals. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Manuel Ott, seen after scoring the team's second goal, proved himself to be irreplaceable for the Azkals.

Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Ott's goal was merely icing on the cake for the Ceres midfielder who whipped out a series of slide-rule passes that gave the Korean defense fits. Had he been available against Uzbekistan, it might have been a different story. 

Patiño didn't get on the scoresheet but he figured in all 3 strikes. Javi has the technical ability to dribble out of trouble, the football IQ to release at the right time, and the lethal finishing that every team needs. 

If we could shield two players in bubble wrap until the Suzuki Cup, it might be these guys. 

Juani Guirado goes out in style, but what's next for the centerback position? In the most poignant moment of the evening, a teary-eyed Juani Guirado dragged himself near the grandstand moments after the final whistle to the applause of the crowd. The retiring centerback kissed the flag on his right sleeve and soaked in the adulation. It was well-deserved. 

But who can fill those shoes now that he, Rob Gier, and occasional centerback Jerry Lucena have all ridden into the sunset? There are options. 

We could get Luke Woodland to step back from defensive midfielder to centerback. That is doable. Another option is to slide Simone Rota into the middle of the defense from his current right back slot. 

The team could also dust off Aly Borromeo or Jason Sabio. They are still playing in the UFL. But Aly turns 33 soon and Sabio doesn't usually start for Ceres, which are causes for concern. 

Other UFL options at the moment are Camelo Tacusalme of JP Voltes, David Basa of Stallion, and Green Archers' utility defender Ronnie Aguisanda. 

Younger options are Matt Asong and Neil Dorimon from San Beda, Ian Clarino of UP, and Arnel Casil of NU. UST has some decent young defenders as well in Ian De Castro and Raniel Dosano. Ditto DLSU's Nicko Villacin and Noel Brago. Fil-Aussie Josh Grommen could also be considered. These youngsters are promising but still need seasoning.

For some reason, the Philippine disapora of ten million is unable to produce another good young centerback. Maybe we should try harder to find one. 

Another out-of-the-box idea: convert James Younghusband to a centerback. He is tall, communicates well, has leadership experience, and can play the position in a pinch. He did so in the UFL Cup for Loyola when the Sparks were hit by a bunch of injuries. 

Or we can just find a mad scientist who has discovered the secret to cloning people. Then he can make four of five copies of Amani Aguinaldo. One of them should be as good as the original. 

Kidding aside, this is a problem that needs attention before the Suzuki Cup. Ideally we have four solid options at this crucial position, in the event of any injuries. 

The PFF is getting there with the ticket pricing. The official attendance was announced as 7,351. Not bad. The grandstand looked around 3/4ths full and the center bleachers mostly occupied. Plenty of room in the side bleachers though. 

The organizers incrementally lowered the prices of the tickets from the last home game in October against Yemen. The side bleachers were cut from P150 to 100. The center bleachers were only P200 as opposed to P300. The cheapest grandstand seat was P500 versus the Yemenis. On Tuesday it was only P300. 

We are almost there. Kudos to the PFF for making the match more affordable for fans. But in my opinion, we still need a truly bargain-basement price to pack those side bleachers. Something that even a cash-strapped student could pony up. Maybe P40 or even P20. Or make it a student section where students can flash a valid school ID and get in for free. 

The UFL gets plenty credit for this win. We beat a team 41 spots ahead of us in the FIFA rankings without Stephan Schrock, Phil Younghusband, Kevin Ingreso, Patrick Reichelt, and OJ Porteria. Most presumably starters. The Azkals is obviously a team with surprising depth. 

Our league employs eight of Tuesday's starting eleven and one of the subs. The UFL thus must take a bow for keeping a large pool of our players razor-sharp, and making selection for the national team more competitive than ever before. Dan Palami, Santi Araneta, Leorey Yanson, and the other team owners of the UFL devote time, money, and effort into their clubs and the league. The standard of Philippine senior football has thus been raised, and this was the fruit of their toil. 

Show your appreciation for the UFL by watching the Cup quarterfinals this Saturday and Sunday, 5:15 pm and 8:15 pm at Rizal Memorial. Four cracking games on tap. My next article will be a preview of this Elite Eight. 

The match takes its place among the pantheon of remarkable Filipino upset victories. November 28, 1991. December 8, 2010. March 29, 2016. These dates represent the SEA Games win over Malaysia in Rizal Memorial, the Miracle in Hanoi, and now this, an upset for the ages. Best of all, Uzbekistan defeated Bahrain and handed us third place in the group. We are going to the next group stage of AFC Asian Cup qualifying next March, sans the hassle of a playoff round. 

It was the perfect night for Philippine football. And maybe the best is yet to come. – Rappler.com 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.