Everything but the Win and then Some

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

I will be the first to admit that I rate the Harimau Malaya (Malayan Tigers) highly. While I only saw their finals matches versus Indonesia in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, I managed to see the Malaysia XI, made up of mainstays from the national team and stars from the Malaysia Super League, when they took on Arsenal and Liverpool in Kuala Lumpur back in July 2011.


While Malaysia XI failed to score against Arsenal, they managed to showcase the quality of Malaysian football when they scored three goals against Liverpool, including one screamer of a goal from captain Safiq Rahim from a free kick, which Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Jones had no prayer of saving.


Since that goal, I have nothing but a high level of respect for the Southeast Asian champions. (Plus, I am a big fan of the Ultras Malaya’s unwavering snare and bass drum beats, which resemble a tiger on the hunt for its prey.)


An international friendly between the reigning AFF Suzuki Cup champions and our national team that was riding on the wave of a couple of solid performances in their Middle East tour should then make for one interesting match.


Perhaps it was the fact that this was not Malaysia’s strongest line-up or perhaps it was the absolutely deplorable conditions of the Rizal Memorial Stadium pitch, but the Tigers that showed up in the first half against the Azkals were reminiscent of the Malaysia XI that faced Arsenal—playing catch-up and looking tentative.


On the flipside, the Philippines had more opportunities to score, with Phil Younghusband, Angel Guirado, and even Jason de Jong testing Malaysian goalkeeper Mohd Farizal Marlias in the first half. The breakthrough for the Philippines came on the 34th minute, with Denis Wolf’s header eluding Marlias. Equal credit must go to the vastly improved Jason Sabio, whose throw-ins have proven to be quite dangerous.


The second half treated the 7,000- to 8,000-strong crowd to a few more opportunities by the Azkals, including Angel Guirado’s displays of technique and skills (if only those shots came in!). Malaysia also had more chances on goal in the second half. Luckily, it was not the best of nights for Safee Sali, who is usually dangerous when given enough room to take a shot—credit the Philippines’ defense for frustrating him for the most part.


Malaysia made some key substitutions in the second half, including the entry of Ahmad Shakir Mohd Ali, who scored the equalizer (and his second international goal for Malaysia) in the 91st minute, off an assist by Safee Sali. If anything, his goal proved a point as to why the Harimau Malaya are the regional champions.


In the post-match press conference, Datuk K. Rajagopal, Malaysia’s head coach, praised his team’s attitude for never giving up, despite the aggressive showing of the Azkals. He added that this match also forms part of their preparations in building a stronger side and a deeper line-up in view of upcoming tournaments, including the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup, which Malaysia is co-hosting later in the year.


They say the final scoreline never tells the entire story all the time. I’ll bluntly put it and say that 1-1 was pretty disappointing, considering the strong showing of the Azkals.


In the lead-up to this match, there has been much talk about the composition of the squad, especially the line-up that will face North Korea, India, and Tajikistan in the AFC Challenge Cup about a week from now. The reality that Coach Hans Michael Weiss faces is that there is much uncertainty in terms of the actual personnel that he could utilize for international competition—and a whole slew of factors contributes to this, including injuries, club commitments, and maintaining the chemistry of the squad. Coach Weiss hinted that this is more or less the line-up that he is looking to work with for the AFC Challenge Cup, and these underscore a few things:


First, Denis Wolf provides another attacking dimension to the Philippines’ game, which had been previously missing. For all the love surrounding Phil Younghusband, he cannot be the lone attacking force in international competitions. Wolf has impressed with his speed and work ethic since debuting for the Azkals in January.


Second, Neil Etheridge is by far our best bet on goal. He is the goalkeeper that keeps their defenders on their toes and has an acute understanding of his role in and value to the national team, perhaps indicators of his growth as a player. For all the fire and fight that the big guy shows on the pitch, his mere presence does have a calming effect for the Azkals’ supporters.


Third, Lexton Moy is an unsung hero. The shortest guy on the pitch may not be the most talented out there, but he certainly is one of the hardest working ones. While the midfield generally needs more teeth in the absence of some key players, Moy has shown scrappiness to fight for the ball, and when he has it, he makes some very smart passes.


Fourth, Jason Sabio has shown tremendous improvement as a player. Despite being outplayed by Ahmad Shakir Mohd Ali in extra time (an unfortunate slip that led to the equalizing goal), Sabio has come out to prove that he is a capable replacement in the absence of Aly Borromeo at center-back. This is a far cry from the player that made gaping mistakes against Kuwait and Mongolia—the current version has looks more fit and shows more smarts on the pitch.


Fifth, the defensive line needs to have more playing time together. The back four made up of Carlie de Murga, Jason Sabio, Juan Luis Guirado, and Ray Jonsson are a relatively solid unit, despite having limited playing time together. It can only get even more cohesive with the increased playing time that they are expected to get.


Sixth, the midfield remains to be an experiment. The match versus Malaysia had Lexton Moy and Jason de Jong partnered in the midfield for the first time together, and this hasn’t paid off much. More stability is needed in the midfield (especially in view of a potentially explosive Jason de Jong), and the team has to reach a level where it should be playing with more ball possession.


Seventh, while the Starting XI may be the most strategic choice that the Philippines have given the limited number of available personnel, the depth of the bench may present a cause for concern for the Azkals when faced with a series of tough opponents in a short period of time. This will definitely be tested in the AFC Challenge Cup.


We had everything but the win against Malaysia, but consider it a step forward toward developing the Philippine national team’s strongest side—which we have yet to witness.


In the meantime, we have North Korea, India, and Tajikistan to contend with. Onward and upward, you Azkals.


As for Malaysia, I look forward to once again hearing your deafening chants and drum beats at the magnificent Bukit Jalil Stadium someday.


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