The Luck of the Draw(s)

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.


If there was a moment in time when a supporter of the Philippine men’s national football team could step back and think of just how far the Azkals have gone since the team shot to superstardom, it has to be June 2012—when the boys finally proved they were no longer the underdogs coming into matches versus regional powerhouses Malaysia and Indonesia.


The good thing about friendly matches is that these allow for a bit of experimentation, especially in view of upcoming regional competitions later in the year. The friendlies with Malaysia and Indonesia heralded glimpses of what many believe is the strongest line-up of the Philippines in recent memory.


Despite a grandiose label, the Azkals only managed a draw against either team. Such results beg for questions—What went right? More importantly, what could stand to be further improved?


Against Malaysia, the Philippines were without the services of Phil and James Younghusband, as well as Neil Etheridge, who served a one-match suspension. Etheridge was hardly missed, as Roland Müller showed us what he can do, having a stellar game against the Malaysians.


The Philippines came out in the first half electrified, thanks largely to the presence of Stephan Schröck, who was just all over the place to create trouble for the Malaysians. Apart from the quality that Schröck brings to the team, what can never be ignored is the swag he brings. There is no denying that the man plays without fear of the opponent—he just charges through, seemingly brimming with the confidence to win. (Now if only we had his services more often for the national team.)


If the first half of the Malaysia-Philippines match showed a high level of energy in the first half, this was not sustained in the second. Bad calls aside, the Malaysians made some adjustments in the second half to frustrate both Schröck and Angel Guirado, effectively snuffing out any threats for the Philippines to score goals. There were times when it felt as if Schröck was running onto a brick wall, with the Malaysians eventually dispossessing him.


As for Guirado, he was adequately covered by at least two Malaysian defenders near the touchline. This was when one would have missed the crosses of James Younghusband, who would manage the feed the ball to the strikers—something that was found wanting with Guirado utilized on the right wing.


One other thing to note during the Malaysia-Philippines match is that the Azkals were considerably outpaced by the Harimau Malaya, especially in the second half. While the Azkals’ conditioning has improved from their performances last year, how they could keep up with other (stronger) teams, especially in the last 30 minutes of a match, may become a critical factor.


Moreover, the Philippines’ defense was found wanting. Perhaps the Azkals had lady luck on their side, since Malaysia couldn’t properly finish, failing to find the net in their shots, even with their second wave of attackers.


Whether one supported Malaysia or the Philippines, a goalless draw was frustrating for both sides, given all the chances to score. Perhaps this was even more frustrating for Malaysia than it was for us, given that they had the momentum in the final third of the game, launching waves of attacks at the Azkals’ backline.


This then set the stage for a team that was hungrier to win at home.


Proving a Point

The match against Indonesia was billeted at “the home game that never was”, yet it hardly felt like that. For one, Indonesia’s line-up had dramatically changed, with only three holdovers from the 2010 Suzuki Cup—Irfan Bachdim, Markus Maulana, and Okto Maniani. The rest of the Indonesian national team is from the Indonesian Premier League, with nobody over the age of 25 (even this situation is an indication of the issues within Indonesia’s football association, but let’s not go there).


In contrast, the Philippines’ starting line-up had Müller, Carli de Murga, Rob Gier, Jason Sabio, Dennis Cagara, Marwin Angeles, Manny Ott, Angel Guirado, Paul Mulders, Chieffy Caligdong, and Denis Wolf. Consider the substitutes: Neil Etheridge, Misagh Bahadoran, James Younghusband, Phil Younghusband, Jerry Lucena, and Jason de Jong. It is as strong as it could get.


The Philippines dominated possession in the first half, threatening Indonesia’s goalkeeper Maulana (who is a strong contender for a Best Actor Oscar, isn’t he?) several times, before Indonesia finally tested Müller at around the 40th minute. The first half also saw an enterprising Dennis Cagara, in his third cap for the Philippines.


As experimental as the line-up could get, there were positives and points for improvement. Sure, we finally have a semblance of a passing game, yet we lacked the creativity and the connection in the final third to convert our chances into goals.  Both the matches against Malaysia and Indonesia further showed that the midfield has to connect better with the forwards to create opportunities to score.


For all the confidence that the Philippines could muster, it was Indonesia that drew the first blood, with Patrick Wanggai scoring in a counterattack. James Younghusband almost immediately leveled the score, before Irfan Bachdim restored Indonesia’s lead, following a defensive lapse from the Azkals.


Bachdim’s goal seemed to have thrown the Azkals off their game, as the team played catch-up in the last 30 minutes of the match (a seemingly familiar scenario?). Things were not about to get any easier as bedlam ensued, resulting to red cards for Bachdim, Caligdong, and Ott.

Despite being down to nine men, the Azkals continued to keep up with Indonesia in pace, and the resilience paid off, with Phil Younghusband scoring a late goal to have the match end in 2-2 draw.


It may have been quite an electrifying game (scuffles included), but the results left some Azkals supporters disappointed (this one included).


A More Menacing Bite Needed

At the post-match press conference, Phil Younghusband remarked, “I think you’ve seen today just how much we’ve grown since 2010. We were in control of the ball. We dictated the tempo of the game. I think we’ve learned more about how far we’ve gone in the last two years, and how we are favorites. I mean, before the game, we were favorites, whereas two years ago, we were never the favorites.”


He was spot-on in his assessment. Still, there’s a long way to go if the Azkals were to emerge victorious in the upcoming Suzuki Cup.


I asked Irfan Bachdim if he considered the match versus the Philippines as the beginnings of a new regional rivalry. “Rivalry is such a big word,” he stated. “I think our rivalry is more with Malaysia.”

This is indicative of what the Azkals need to work on. Against Indonesia, our powerhouse line-up failed to stamp its authority over a young team that didn’t have the likes of Cristian Gonzales. Sure, the respect level has significantly increased, but we have yet to instill intimidation in our opponents—and this will come once we start winning against them. (Not through a “You’re in our house now” banner—which would have been more effective if we had an 80,000-seater stadium filled to the rafters and cheering non-stop for the Azkals.)


There’s still one more friendly lined up for the Azkals this June, against Guam in Panaad Stadium, Bacolod City. After two disappointing draws, expectations are high for the former underdogs to secure a convincing win.


We’ve come a long way, but this building and experimenting process is far from over.


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.