MANILA, Philippines – Last Saturday night, October 13, the Philippines capped their Qatar training camp with a 1-1 draw against Oman, a red-hot Gulf side.
An Omani own goal canceled out the opener after Neil Etheridge flapped at a corner, sending it to Raed Saleh who finished brilliantly from above his waist. See the highlights here.
The Omanis outshot the Azkals 15-4, so we should be thankful that we got a piece of Oman, who are ranked 85th in the world.
This is an experienced and shrewd Oman team who scouted us well. They obviously knew that Manny Ott was our midfield engine because he was shackled throughout the game with good man-marking.
With Ott not given possession and space, Phil Younghusband and Javi Patiño were unable to strut their stuff.
What was nice to see was Scott Cooper's commitment to a possession-based attack, from what I could gather. He obviously wants to instill a cultured tactical plan and rely less on hoofing forward.
He also concocted a new centerback pairing with Alvaro Silva and Luke Woodland. Silva is just as I remembered him, a physical, ornery defender not afraid to stick his body in there to prevent goals. He was, unsurprisingly, yellow carded.
It wasn't a great performance but against a team of this caliber, it's understandable. We need the tough games to sharpen the squad not only for the AFC Asian Cup but for the Suzuki Cup.
John-Patrick Strauß and Michael Falkesgaard proved they can help
"He is good with the ball, a real composed midfielder, and he tracks back on defense."
Those are the words of a longtime Azkals buddy (who chooses to be anonymous) on Strauß, a 22-year-old Filipino-German holding midfielder who got a run-out on Saturday night.
Strauß plays for Erzebirge Aue in the German second tier, known as the 2. Bubdesliga. This is a serious league that promotes to the Bundesliga where Bayern Munich play. So we know he has quality. Erzebirge is 13th in the league out of 18 clubs, so it is not exactly cannon fodder there.
Amin Nazari, a Fil-Iranian/Swede, also got some playing time.
But perhaps the best revelation was goalie Michael Falkesgaard. The Fil-Dane trotted on to the pitch after the halftime break. I am almost certain this was a planned switch and had nothing to do with Neil's half-clearance that led to the goal.
Yousuf Butt, the Pakistani national keeper who was raised in Denmark, tells me Falkesgaard mostly sat in his career in Denmark, where he was a reserve for Brondby, a big Danish club where he made just 8 appearances in 5 years. But now, he is starting for Bangkok United in the Thai top tier. In that league, his Filipino passport is valuable. Bangkok get a European-level player to fill their ASEAN player spot.
Falkesgaard made at least two big stops in the second half to complete a 45-minute clean sheet. It has been recorded elsewhere that his total was 5 stops.
The Fil-Dane has the size, ball skills, and regular club action to make him a good choice for November's Suzuki Cup. He likely has the inside track on the No. 1 jersey next month. (I can't see Neil Etheridge coming over for that since only a few games of the AFF championship are within the FIFA window for November.)
That means Pat Deyto will probably be his back up. The Davao netminder was not even in this camp.
If Falkesgaard can get the start next month he will be the sixth different Filipino keeper in the AFF championship in as many editions, a remarkable fact.
Louie Casas manned the posts in 2004 and 2007, (it was still the Tiger Cup until 2004.) We didn't qualify in 2008, but made the semis with Neil Etheridge on the gloves in 2010. Ed Sacapaño was our No. 1 for another semifinal run in 2012, with Deyto getting the honor two years later. In 2016 it was Roland Müller's turn. Azkals fans can consider themselves blessed to have so many quality goalkeepers in that time.
The Philippines showed depth in the Bangabandhu Gold Cup
Just before the Qatar camp, the team played in a tournament in Bangladesh with players mostly on the fringes of selection. Anto Gonzales, the UP coach, mentored this team to a 3-1 win over Laos and then a solid 1-0 triumph over the hosts. Sadly they lost 0-2 to Tajikistan in the semis.
This was a feel-good story for Philippine football.
Gonzales became the fourth coach for the Philippines in the last 11 months, (Marlon Maro in Taiwan last December, Dooley until March, then Cooper and then Gonzales.) He only burnished his reputation by getting results from this hastily-assembled squad.
Kaya's Jovin Bedic started as well and he and Fitch Arboleda showed glimpses of real quality. I was also impressed with Nathan Alquiros, a standout at left back.
But the biggest story perhaps was the mythic performance of goalie Louie Casas, who returned to the starting lineup of the Azkals for the first time in over a decade.
The former Ceres shot stopper, now with Global, proved he belonged between the sticks with a string of saves in all 3 matches. While not the tallest keeper, Casas showed his dexterity and reactions in the very first highlight of this clip, just before Kenshiro Daniels' goal off Misagh Bahadoran's fine assist.
Competitions like the Bangabandhu Cup are important because they let us test a bigger pool of players. We need to blood up-and-coming stars to see if they are worthy of greater pressure. This is vital with the Suzuki Cup just around the corner. European-based Azkals like Etheridge, and Daisuke Sato might not be available for that, so Philippines-based stars must step up.
The fans, too, have to stand and be counted. The group stage of the Suzuki Cup is fast approaching, and we need big crowds for our two home games. It's important to get the word out.
Here is the group stage schedule:
Philippines vs Singapore
8:00 pm Tuesday, November 13
Panaad Stadium, Bacolod
Timor Leste vs Philippines
8:00 pm Saturday, November 17
Kuala Lumpur Football Stadium, Cheras, Malaysia
Philippines vs Thailand
7:30 pm Wednesday, November 21
Panaad Stadium, Bacolod
Indonesia vs Philippines
8:00 pm Sunday, November 25
Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Jakarta Indonesia
All in Philippine time. TV coverage TBA