MANILA, Philippines – The Azkals make life difficult for an Asian powerhouse in our AFC Asian Cup debut on Monday, January 7. Here's a breakdown of the encouraging loss:
Sven-Goran Eriksson made 3 decisions that kept this game close.
The Azkals coach deserves a lot of credit for this performance.
The first big call from the Swede was to leave Phil Younghusband off the starting 11. This might seem blasphemous to Azkals fans, but it makes sense.
Eriksson wanted a compact side that would play resolute defense and hopefully not concede. Defense is not Phil's forte, and he obviously wanted younger, fitter, quicker players who could keep pace with the fleet-footed Koreans. The tactic seemed to have worked, as our opponents were largely stymied in their efforts to score thanks to a 5-4-1 formation with 3 centerbacks.
The coach also stationed Stephan Schrock at right wingback in the formation. That gave our Energizer Bunny the ability to harass the Korean wide attackers but also granted him carte blanche to bomb forward on the flanks when we had the ball. Schrock, who is always supremely fit, accomplished both tasks pretty well.
The start sheet showed two left backs in the 11, Daisuke Sato and Stephan Palla. That must have left many eagle-eyed Azkals fans scratching their heads. But the mystery was solved when Palla emerged as one of the 3 centerbacks alongside Alvaro Silva and Luke Woodland.
Palla was favored over Carli De Murga, and although they are roughly the same age, Eriksson must have felt the Fil-Austrian had an edge seeing him in training, even if it meant playing him out of position. With that scoreline, it can be said that the decision was the correct one.
The game plan was to keep shape, stay disciplined and compact, and strike on the counter when given the chance. The Philippines very nearly got a result off it, with Javi Patiño giving the Korean keeper work twice, and almost getting on target with a long-range effort.
The only goal was a wonderful piece of off-the-ball movement from Korea capped by a fine finish from Hwang Ui-jo. Other than that, the Pinoy defense held, thanks in large part to a solid day from Michael Falkesgaard in goal.
Was it all good tactically? Not quite. Eriksson replaced Manny Ott with Adam Tull in the 78the. I have seen Tull, also known as Adam Reed, as a holding, or defensive, midfielder for Kaya and then Davao.
Down 1-0, I felt there was still hope for us to get an equalizer. Surely Phil Younghusband should have gotten the tap on the shoulder instead, or maybe even Mike Ott, Jovin Bedic, or Curt Dizon. Instead he went with a defensive-minded player.
Perhaps Eriksson was taking the 1-0 since it meant we would only suffer a goal difference of -1, crucial if we are to move on to the knockout stages. Understandable, but history beckoned if we could have nicked a goal. I think the coach could have gone more offensive.
Phil Younghusband eventually did get in the game, but in the 88th minute. Far too late for him to make an impact. He deserved more than just this cameo.
The Azkals' conditioning coach deserves a shoutout.
Not sure who is in charge of the fitness for this team, but I believe he deserves a Man Of The Match award.
In 2016 I dubbed commentary for both the AFC Champions League and the second-tier AFC Cup for ABS-CBN. Often times I would dub games for the higher tier back-to-back with the lower tier. The difference in the fitness was marked. The AFC Cup games, in comparison with the Champions League, looked like they were being played in slow motion. The tempo was just so much quicker.
Last Monday, it could be said that we saw AFC Champions League players, (Korea), against AFC Cup players, (Philippines). We had every excuse to wilt in the face of their superior speed and quickness. And yet the team hung in there til the bitter end. There were no glaring endgame errors due to fatigue.
Many don't realize it, but parking the bus is tiring. You are always reacting, chasing the ball, and you never have momentum since you don't have much possession. Korea won the possession battle by an astonishing 81 to 19%
Let's hope the team rests well and is just as fit for Friday's game against China.
We are in a pretty good position.
The Philippines is in last place in Group C after China came from behind to beat Kyrgyzstan, 2-1. We have the same GD as the Central Asians but since they have scored two goals, the White Falcons are above us in the standings.
The top two teams from each of the 6 groups reach the round of 16 knockout stage, along with the best 4 third-placers.
Since we didn't get blown out by Korea Republic, we are in very decent shape in terms of goal difference, which will be a likely tiebreaker for the third placers.
But the mission remains the same: get 4 points from the next two matches. A draw and a win against China and Kyrgystan. Tall order, but this gives the Philippines hope.
Thoughts on the cable-only TV coverage.
There is much teeth-gnashing from the Azkals nation about the lack of free-to-air TV coverage. There are some things that fans must take into consideration. The first is that the rights holders of this event can charge whatever they please for the rights to air on free TV. (Cable and free-to-air rights are different.)
Rights holders are used to charging high and still being able to sell. The TV networks that buy the rights can sell the advertising time easily since there is so much excitement and buzz in these football-crazy Asian nations.
It's simply not the case in the Philippines. Our football audience is still relatively small, whether we like to admit it or not.
Networks like ESPN5 are not charitable institutions. Chot Reyes tweeted that they tried to negotiate with the rights holders for a fee they thought was fair, but were unable to come to a deal. Reyes likely felt he could only sell so much in ads, and the price given wouldn't recoup it.
There has been some criticism of the networks for not biting the bullet and paying for this event. But from what I can see, ESPN5 has done its part to promote the game. It has aired the Suzuki Cup twice in a row and 3 times in the last 4 editions. It showed the old UFL for 5 years, even though it was far from a money-making bonanza. It broadcast last year's PFL final.
It is unfortunate and frustrating that these games are only on cable. But this is the reality we face. We in the community might think we are a huge army but in reality we probably aren't, compared to other sports. We need to work even harder to grow our tribe and be attractive to advertisers. Lashing out is understandable, but it may not help.
The other factor is the rise of livestreaming. Networks would be more loathe than ever to take a chance on football knowing that streams, both legal and illegal, are out there, showing the same content. Maybe 10 years ago ESPN5 would have bitten on the offer of the rights holder. But not today.
Fans also need to embrace the fact that we are transitioning to a post-TV world. That's why I shared the details of the Fox + app and how we could watch for free there thanks to a free 30-day trial. I don't know how easy it is to sign up, though, since I have Fox Sports on cable.
I hear the fans. I feel the frustration. But let us use this setback as a reminder that there is plenty of work for all of us to do. Every Filipino fan needs to be an evangelist of the game in order for this sort of thing to happen less frequently
And the focus now should be on China. Let's try to find a place with cable. Let's sign up for the Fox + app. Let's go all out for the side. Let's make history.
Philippines vs China
AFC Asian Cup Group Stage
Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Friday, January 11, 9:30 pm Philippine time,
LIVE on Fox Sports and the Fox + app
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH