BACOLOD, Philippines - There’s no shame in a draw. After the Azkals’ 2-2 stalemate against Yemen in their 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying match on Tuesday, September 5, coach Thomas Dooley very candidly admitted that he was happy with the result.
Those who would disagree with him will point out that we played at home against a country ranked far below us in the FIFA rankings, one that needed 3 days of travel to get to Bacolod. The visitors also played in the rain, which their coach Abraham Mebratu Gebreselassie said the team had never trained in before. That should have been a huge advantage for us.
But the Pinoys faced enough challenges of their own to make this draw satisfying. First of all, the defense changed more in one half than it does for some clubs over a 6-game stretch. Junior Munoz, the starter at right back, got hurt and was withdrawn at half time. That necessitated the entry of James Younghusband into the unfamiliar role of right back.
Substitute Hikaru Minegishi also ended up playing at left wingback, another player playing a defensive position that is not his first choice. (For Global Minegishi is more advanced in the formation.)
This is coupled with a centerback pairing of Carlie De Murga and Dennis Villanueva which can't be all that cozy with each other. Fortunately in the center of the midfield Kevin Ingreso and Manny Ott were in similar positions to what they play week-in week-out for Ceres.
A draw is a point, and that moves us forward.
Plus, one has to hand it to the players for showing plenty of grit. They came from a goal down twice and that's never easy.
Plus this game once again proved how little a 19-point gap in the FIFA ranking means, at least at this end of the list. Yemen had some very skilled players, like the speedy Ahmed Al Sarori and the opportunistic Abdulwasea Al Matari. The Philippines plays against Yemen again on October 10 in Doha, Qatar. For sure it will be another test.
The Younghusbands deliver once again
James turned 31 the day before the game. He made his debut for the national team in 2006 in Panaad. Thrust into right back it could be argued that he could take some responsibility for the calamitous defensive organization that led to the second Yemeni goal. But he proved his worth with a sublime header to level at 2-2.
Phil on the other hand is creeping towards an international half-century of goals. His free kick goal in the first half, the second one in as many qualifying matches, gets him to 47. It's now conceivable that he reaches the fifty-goal milestone this year.
If we were to encapsulate the rise of the Azkals in 7 words over the last decade, perhaps "Phil came and scored lots of goals" would suffice. He is simply impossible to take for granted. So many countries crave a reliable goalscorer such as him. We have been incredibly blessed.
We definitely need to start looking for a replacement for the brothers. Hopefully another set of siblings, Manny and Mike Ott, could fill the void going forward. They may not have the physical stature of the Younghusbands but they do have quality, and worked great together in midfield.
Fatigue played a factor
In the post match presscon Thomas Dooley bemoaned the weariness of some of his players. He noted that Ingreso and Manny Ott in particular looked sluggish tracking back on defense. He blamed it on the brutal schedule of PFL and AFC Cup matches that Ceres must go through.
But that's what happens when you start a national league in May and not earlier. For various reasons the start of the PFL got pushed back again and again, from February all the way to May.
But the other issue is that the AFC wants its member association's national leagues to have a certain number of matches minimum. If I'm not mistaken that number is 32 or thereabouts. Hence the quadruple-round-robin format plus the playoffs that will get us close to that number. The league plans to crown a champion by the second week of December.
Other countries which started their leagues earlier can space out those matches better. But since we only started in May, we need to cram all of those games in a shorter amount of time before the calendar year is over.
The wear and tear builds up, and thus the exhausted players. And it's going to get worse, especially for Ceres.
The Busmen have 16 regular season league matches to go. Plus, if they make the playoffs, a two legged semis and either a final match or a third place game. Then there is the second leg of their AFC Cup series with Istiklol on Tuesday. Plus two more Azkals qualifiers in October and November. A Ceres Azkal like Manny Ott, Iain Ramsay, Kevin Ingreso could thus be playing 21 matches from now until December.
The conditioning coaches of Ceres and the Azkals will have their work cut out for them to manage all this stress.
Hopefully next year the PFL can kick off earlier and the players won't be so beat up come season's end.
The official attendance was reported as 2,911, far short of Panaad's capacity of 8000.
The grandstand had plenty of spectators, with only the edges truly devoid of fans. But the edge bleachers had almost nobody watching while the main bleachers along the pitch were also not full.
One member of the coaching staff told me he was confident of a big turnout. But instead we stopped at just shy of 3000. Enough to create a big enough racket and a decent atmosphere, but hardly a spillover crowd.
Yes, it's true that Bacolod has more enthusiasm for football than Metro Manila in general, as evidenced by the poorly attended matches for the Azkals earlier in the year. But that does not mean a full house is a given in Panaad.
Two factors could have been improved in this respect: the local promotion could have been better and the ticket prices could have been brought even lower.
Everywhere you go in Bacolod you can see streamers and posters advertising the AFC Cup clash on Sept 12 versus Istiklol. I didn't notice anything of the sort for this game last Tuesday.
The tickets were priced P50, 100, 300 and 500. In hindsight the tickets could have started at P20 and topped out at 200 or 300 pesos. The P50 ticket was in the bleachers, where you had no protection from rain.
Bacolod may be a big provincial city but incomes are still lower than in Metro Manila and probably even Cebu. It's a price sensitive market. Plus Panaad is 8-9 kilometers away from the city center and the match was on a weeknight.
Yes Bacolodnons are getting to love football thanks to Ceres. But Ceres doesn't charge any admission for their matches. P50 may appear to be chump change to some, but it's still 50 pesos more than what they are used to paying for a football game.
In either corner of the bleachers there are gates, and spectators could be seen watching from the outside through them. Obviously they wanted to catch the action but couldn't pony up the 50 bucks to get in.
The Azkals are back in Bacolod in March to host Tajikistan. Hopefully next we can have better preparation for a big crowd that this team deserves.
But even more importantly, let's hope we are qualifed by then. The team took a step towards that goal on Tuesday. On 7 points, atop the group, the dream of the Asian Cup in 2019 is slowly getting closer to reality. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.