What. A. Match.

Liverpool surely don’t do it easy or straightforward. They had to have us going from one emotion to the extreme opposite end. Last night’s match vs Norwich is one for the books. What a rollercoaster ride. Adam Lallana, you are my hero.

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WCQ: Philippines 2 – 1 Bahrain

There are times when I am reminded that supporting the Azkals qualifies as love—when it’s not about sitting through a game of long balls or putting up with the drama of men, it has got to be trekking to Bulacan.

This is perhaps a South kid complaint. After all, there’s nothing as exciting as the prospect of passing through the arterial shithole that is EDSA and having your too smart of a car alert you multiple times that the transmission is close to overheating as you literally inch your way up north.

But really, once you get past the NLEX Toll Gates of Hell (where nobody seems to have a concept of what a straight line is), the drive to the Philippine Sports Stadium (PSS) is smooth and fast. Amid a starless night sky, the PSS and the adjacent Philippine Arena are sights to behold.

After parking in a slightly muddy vacant lot, my friend Ron and I made the long walk to the stadium, arriving just in time to hear the starting lineups being announced.

Entering the PSS, one would obviously think it’s… clean. It’s shiny and new. Still, it’s nowhere near intimidating when only about a quarter of the stadium is filled with people—obviously the ones who love the Azkals in equal measure or more than we do.

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By the time eight o’clock rolled around, the players made it to the pitch, and despite whatever pronouncements about being “the strongest Azkals lineup yet”, there’s good reason to be fairly concerned. You’ve got a handful of highly touted names joining the squad for the first time—and who knows how that will pan out. Moreover, the guys have been together for barely two weeks in training. Add to that the last-minute suspense of whether or not certain players will be cleared to play.

And I never thought I would see the day when the Azkals play a 3-5-2 formation. Risky, but it just might pay off against a quicker Bahraini squad.

The first half saw barely any chances for the Azkals and a couple of nervy moments for the defense. Prodigal Azkal Stephan Schröck picked up an injury and had to be taken out in the 22nd minute. Coming into halftime with a 0-0 scoreline was definitely a good sign.

The second half was quite a different story though, with goals by Misagh Bahadoran (his first international goal—would you believe it? My favorite ball hog and dribble boy finally got his own breakthrough after all these years!) and Javier Patiño (another Prodigal Azkal whose goal-scoring exploits in Thailand and China have finally benefited the Philippines!).

Cue the wild cheers—there must have been five different cheer groups at PSS that night, from the Ultras on one end to the familiar beats of the UP Pep Squad on the other. Please, let’s just not have Mexican waves when the stadium is not even half full.

Cue as well the Diving Divas of Bahrain. If you can’t beat them on goals, beat them on the acting department.

That being said, I thought that who made the most difference was Phil Younghusband. If memory serves me right, there have been experiments in the past in club football where he plays a deeper attacking midfield role, and I thought he has been more effective as that, as opposed to being the sole target man up front (seriously, nobody in the Azkal line-up, save for Schröcky, comes close to being as quick as the Middle Eastern teams).

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The only slight spoiler to the party was Bahrain scoring a goal in stoppage time. We should have shut them out—after all, we’ll need all the advantages we could get in a tough World Cup Qualifying Group.

And while we’re at it, someone please tell the DOTC to put up a rail express to connect PSS with Metro Manila. Someone, anyone please take a cue from how most of the world do their stadia.

Oh Captain, My Captain

tumblr_nogj90ACFc1tjid03o1_540This has got to be one of the hardest goodbyes in football. That 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace is Steven Gerrard’s last match at Anfield, after some 17 years and 10 trophies amassed. He is the heart and soul of Liverpool, and his departure will leave a gaping hole in central midfield. Thanks for the memories, Stevie. You are my hero.

About Last Sunday…

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Fernando Torres captioned this photo as “Liverpool family”. I can’t even muster any eloquence to describe what the All-Star Charity Match (a.k.a. everyone’s chance to say goodbye) means to the fans. This club is making me weepy again (apart from the huge blows against Arsenal and that club made of manure).

Start the year with a tear

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This has been the toughest decision of my life and one which both me and my family have agonised over for a good deal of time.I am making the announcement now so that the manager and the team are not distracted by stories or speculation about my future.

Liverpool Football Club has been such a huge part of all our lives for so long and saying goodbye is going to be difficult, but I feel it’s something that’s in the best interests of all involved, including my family and the club itself.

I’m going to carry on playing and although I can’t confirm at this stage where that will be, I can say it will be somewhere that means I won’t be playing for a competing club and will not therefore be lining up against Liverpool – that is something I could never contemplate.

My decision is completely based on my wish to experience something different in my career and life and I also want to make sure that I have no regrets when my playing career is eventually over.

I can’t thank Brendan, the owners and everyone at the club enough for how they’ve handled this and I am leaving on great terms. Also, I would like to thank my teammates and all the staff for their help and continued support.

It is a very special place to be part of. It is my sincere hope and wish that one day I can return to serve Liverpool again, in whatever capacity best helps the club.

One point that is important to make is that from now until the last kick of the last game of the season, I will be as fully committed to the team as I ever have been and giving everything I have to help Liverpool win games.

My final message is for the people who make Liverpool Football Club the greatest in the world – the supporters.

It has been a privilege to represent you, as a player and as captain. I have cherished every second of it and it is my sincere wish to finish this season and my Liverpool career on a high.”

– Steven Gerrard

It is an end of an era, indeed. Steven Gerrard *is* Liverpool.

Hopes and Expectations

I started the early morning of December 10 feeling tragically optimistic that Liverpool would somehow cinch a home win over Basel to proceed to the knockout stages of the Champions League. I ended up feeling sorrier for Steven Gerrard than for myself over a crummy 1-1 draw that saw Liverpool largely uninspired and lacking ideas.

I started the evening of December 10 hoping against all hope that the Azkals would break their scoreless streak in the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup for the third consecutive tournament. I ended up feeling sorrier for Rob Gier and his tired, dejected face when the final whistle blew at the Rajamangala Stadium.

This is when your emotional well-being takes a beating. Days and nights end with extreme opposites of emotion. Elation for those shots on target replaced with deflation and what-could-have-beens. Hopes dashed with the knowledge that a shot made or missed spelled the outcome of a game.

Add to that aging captains and talismans who might not be around much longer.

Feelings are indeed all over the place.

Let me take a step back though. There was much optimism surrounding the 0-0 draw in Manila as a momentum that the Azkals could ride on. Maybe it was just us pep-talking ourselves that we could change our fortunes in an away game. After all, recent history (as in the 2012 Suzuki Cup) tells us that a goalless draw at home never really set the stage for an away win.

Two years ago, in the away game against Singapore, we regressed to the 2010-2011 version of ourselves, resorting to long balls and lacking creativity anywhere. This time around, we played catch-up to Thailand since the start of the match—and paid for it. While we were able to impose a semblance of our game in the second half, Thailand simply outplayed and outclassed us (times like this, I miss the brazenness of Stephan Schröck to tear down the middle and match Charyl Chappuis in the swagger department).

Inasmuch as this loss bites once again (and how we have to wait for another two agonizing years to try and stamp dominance on ASEAN football), the loss to Thailand opens up opportunities for introspection and taking stock of where we are in comparison to the rest of the region (rankings be damned).

When I look back at our tournament, the three key standouts to me were Misagh Bahadoran, Patrick Reichelt, and Amani Aguinaldo.

Misagh Bahadoran received a lot of love from me on Twitter, but while he lacks the killer instinct in the final third and his decision-making skills have been suspect, you can’t fault the guy for trying. In all the years I’ve watched this guy on the pitch, this is probably the tournament where you can say he’s tried his darndest.

Patrick Reichelt, to me, has posed a greater scoring threat than Phil Younghusband, and this super-sub role fits him well.

As for Amani Aguinaldo, the boy has grown into a man in this tournament, and he is definitely the future of our aging backline. When fans of other nations in the tournament go the extra mile to intimidate this player (and when the opposing team all makes a go for him, expecting him to crack), in a sense, this is a good sign that they are taking him seriously.

Let me go back to Liverpool for a bit here. When my Reds crashed out the Champions League, Steven Gerrard essentially pointed out that Liverpool did not crash because of that one home game at Anfield versus Basel. The situation that they put themselves in—a must-win game at home—was the result of several games where they could have ended in better results for themselves. I can’t help but feel the same way for the Azkals—we put ourselves in a situation where we could not win against the likes of Thailand or Vietnam and botched our chances of winning at home by fluffing two or so really good chances to score.

That said, the game versus Thailand gives us much room to learn from the rest of the region. Two years ago, the likes of Teerasil Dangda and Theeraton Bunmathan captivated us. Those big names are absent now, replaced by the likes of Chanathip Songkrasin (dubbed Messi Jay—and we all saw why at the Rajamangala Stadium) and Swiss-Thai Charyl Chappuis (who I am dubbing the Asian Cristiano Ronaldo, by virtue of his finely shaped eyebrows and copious amounts of hair gel to keep that ‘do in place). To be optimistic that we could win against Thailand by virtue of their strikers unavailable for the return leg was painfully short-sighted. It was Thailand’s midfield that controlled and dominated the game.

Moreover, about half of Thailand’s line-up were carryovers from the U23s, which makes it a strong case for developing local talent.

When I look back at the year that was, I remember being optimistic with a new coach at the helm, young players brought into the fold, and a more attractive, possession-based, passing game. It just seemed to be the foundations to get the silverware that we longed for. Along the way, that optimism has waned for one reason or another (let’s not go there).

If this was the plot of a story, this feels like the denouement already. As for the conclusion—that is too early to say, following a tournament that left us all believing and ending up in the same place as we were before. Will there be swan songs and fresh starts? Part of me hopes so.

Looking forward to the next chance for us to prove that we are even better than ourselves.

(As it appears on Pinoyfootball)

Miracle in Hanoi (Part 2)

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve had more than one not-too-optimistic comments about how the Azkals have prepped for the Suzuki Cup. Even the 4-1 victory over Laos was not enough to quell all the “They could have done better!” nagging thoughts in my head.

That said, this national team acquits itself quite nicely (as if they owe me anything, really). Nay, I’d say they finally got a sense of vindication after finally winning over Indonesia in 80+ years or so of football history. In Hanoi, once again. This miracle surely keeps on rewriting itself.

Finally, they’re inspiring confidence once again.