Xabi Alonso is a vision in red.

Well, if I can’t see him anytime soon (or anymore) in Liverpool red, todo La Roja does it quite nicely, doesn’t it?

Also, by beating France 1-0, Spain is currently on top of Group I in the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers. You can never write the campeones del mundo out of it.

France Spain WCup Soccer

If you must go down, go down fighting

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the usherette at the entrance of the Rizal Memorial Stadium said. “You have to sign a waiver.”

“What for?” I asked, confusion written all over my sweaty face. I had just gotten my ticket a couple of minutes ago, managed to evade several TV crews, and explained to Conan the Barbarian Bouncer that my Canon G10 was not a professional camera.

“Your kid,” she says. I whirled around, looking for my “child”. “What kid?!” I exclaimed indignantly, “I am insulted!”

Well, if this was any indication of the load of surprises that was in store for the night, it was a good one.

(Oh wait, the first surprise was actually a ticket on the grandstand. Thank you, benefactor who wishes to remain nameless. I owe you a real cheeseburger.)

I settled into my seat as the line-ups were being called. Pretty soon, the teams were making their way onto the middle of the pitch. It’s a match that has got a lot hanging on it—the miracle of miracles to send the Philippines to the next round of qualifications for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil or the end of the road to Brazil.

That said, it must be noted that in the first half of the match, Kuwait was playing with the Philippines, employing an attacking style of football as well. Kuwait was attacking on the left flank early on (until they decided to bring in that incredibly annoying Arabian Ronaldinho Fahad Al Enezi, the #7, which evened out the attack on both flanks). Waleed Jumah (#15) and Yousef Nasser (#20) were particularly dangerous.

And boy, oh boy, Kuwait’s counterattacks were damn fast, and their movement and passing displayed fluidity. Kuwait also managed to find their way through a relatively solid back four of the Philippines—talk about weaving through tight spaces. If they weren’t just a tad unlucky, that would have been at least two goals from them. Of course, you got to give credit to Neil Etheridge for deflecting a couple of those shots (I did think he had a rather shaky start though—wasted long balls, anyone?).

It’s not as if we had a shortage of chances either. Rob Gier had an attempt on goal with a header as early as the 8th minute (Rob was also solid on defense, displaying his experience against quicker Kuwaiti attackers). I missed the usual monster game from Angel Guirado Aldeguer though. Watching from the grandstand, I felt like he didn’t have his usual ferocity and that his defenders were always beating him to the ball. Also, all his headers were either off the mark or easily saved by Kuwait’s goalkeeper—who just stamped his class on all of the Philippines’ efforts, including attempts by Aly Borromeo at the 38th minute and by Chieffy Caligdong at the 39th.

And then there were Phil Younghusband’s efforts. Where do we start?

Reminiscent of that epic failure in Kuwait, he had a few chances to get to the ball, and when he did, he was easily dispossessed. It was quite frustrating to watch on the couple of times it happened—you know he can never finish singlehandedly. A lack of quality? A lack of smarts? Either way, those chances may have had a different outcome if help was forthcoming. (I was already screaming “Fail Younghusband!” several times.)

Well into injury time in the first half, there was a scrappy Chieffy Caligdong fighting off two defenders to retain possession of the ball, which managed to find itself on Phil Younghusband (one of the few times he decided to run his lazy butt), who fought for the ball, picked up by Stephan Schröck, who shot a screamer that sailed past Kuwait’s goalkeeper—his first goal for the Philippines and more importantly, a goal that kept the country’s hopes alive.

Let me tell you what it was like when that goal was scored. There was a collective display of sheer joy and elation from tens of thousands of fans in the stadium, coming from a relative resignation that holding the opponent to 0-0 was good enough. It’s that spontaneous display of reaction that makes one think, “This is what it feels like to be alive.”

Here’s the thing with miracles. No matter how insurmountable the challenges may be, one must always hope for them (and no matter how Arabian Ronaldinho was massively play-acting and time-wasting, you have to play on and set aside any urges to kick him in the groin). And the Philippine team clearly had this in mind.

Still, much is left to be desired with various aspects of the game of the Philippines. The passing during attacks has been wasted due to miscommunication (of the few times Fail Younghusband decided to pass, he passed to nobody), the battle of the midfield remains to be in Kuwait’s favor, and there were defensive lapses that cost us dearly, especially at the 61st minute, when Yousef Nasser’s attempt did not even get a reaction from the defense—securing the opponents’ first goal, even when they were down to 10 men (Fahad Al Ebrahim was sent off at the 59th minute).

Kuwait started becoming gung-ho on defense in the last 10 minutes of the match, and on the 83rd minute, their counterattacking paid off once more, after Waleed Jumah beat Aly Borromeo, Neil Etheridge, and Ray Jonsson to score Kuwait’s second in an open goal.

It may have been enough to think, “This is what death feels like.” Yet, you can count on the team and its supporters to rally behind what a street dog is all about—it’s being scrappy, resilient, and if it must go down, it must go down fighting. The final scoreline read Philippines 1 – 2 Kuwait, effectively snuffing out Brazilian dreams. I remember seeing Aly Borromeo hunched near the touchline, seemingly in tears. That was a tad heartbreaking to see. (My personal second half highlight? Seeing Rob Gier release some aggression—and rightfully so.)

Putting things into perspective, however, this was a national team that did not even dare compete in the World Cup qualifiers in recent years and were perennial whipping boys in tournaments, and now, here it was, earning the respect of one of Asia’s most powerful teams. I’m not one to easily call small victories “historic”, and there’s a variety of things that supporters believe in, but what I can say is this: These men have made us dream of what this country can achieve, and they should continue to make us dream—this is but the start for clawing, scratching, scampering, and scrapping our way onto the world stage.

Stand tall, stand proud, you Azkals. It’s a long road ahead to attain glory, and you’ve already made those first steps.

Video

He will Schröck you

A proper post soon. For now, let’s relish in that short-lived glory of Schröck’s goal. (P.S. Wow, one of the few instances that Fail Younghusband worked his butt off to get that ball.)

Desert apologetics, momentum, and perhaps, a miracle

It’s not regular fare that I manage to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning to catch the Philippine National Football Team in action (but that I would for Spain, Real Madrid, and, in the few times that it applies, Liverpool). Somewhere between incessant tweeting of match updates and berating that needs to be let out, there will always be a part of me that would want the underdogs to achieve a bit of glory.

That said, I will be the first to admit I wasn’t expecting a win versus Kuwait. Of course, that would be the best case scenario. A draw was a reasonable expectation. Should we lose, we can’t let ourselves be down by more than one goal. In that way, it wouldn’t be too punishing of a mountain to climb on the return leg in Manila.

From the get-go, Kuwait looked like they were out to kill, but give credit to the Philippines for being solid on defense in the first half. Notice how Kuwait turned to their wingers to attack, with focus on the right wing in the first half. Our defense has been solid, with the midfielders tracking back to help out. The team came in the game with the mindset of not conceding goals, hence a highly defensive 4-5-1 set-up.

With the team’s focus on the defensive end, our counter-attacking leaves much to be desired. Case in point, Phil Younghusband beaten on a one-on-one play against Kuwait’s goalkeeper, who had committed forward (this reminded me of Torres’ Euro 2008 goal—if Phil was a half-second quicker, he could have easily lobbed the ball into the Kuwaiti goal, in a flying swan fashion, no less). If I remember correctly, there were two other Kuwaitis closing in on Phil from behind—now this is why it can get rather frustrating when he’s the sole striker up front.

Following that, we had several other chances of scoring, thanks to headers by Angel Guirado Aldeguer (hit the crossbar) and Chieffy Caligdong (cleared by another defender on the right post), as well as a volley from Phil Younghusband (slight touch by the goalkeeper, before it also hit the crossbar).

As the first half ended, I thought that our defense did a pretty good job as to what it had to do, except for that one defensive error that led to Kuwait’s first goal. We had our chances to score and missed, but what was important was that we had those precious chances—an indication that Kuwait may not necessarily have gotten us figured out to a T. If we could only ride on that momentum, we had a pretty good chance of scoring.

But alas, I was dead wrong.

Whatever good we had done in the first half was not there in the second. Perhaps it was the heat and fatigue getting to our players, especially with the wingers getting their work cut out for them. The painful realization hits when Angel Guirado Aldeguer was temporarily wheeled off from the pitch after suffering a knock (santa madre mía de dios, how many pieces will this guy be at the end of the match?), and we seemed to have lost that momentum. Moments later, Kuwait scored their second goal from a mad scramble right in front of the goal (how the hell that got in escapes me). As for Kuwait’s third goal, that was one beauty of a goal—one key moment where we did not properly close out.

Just a few observations:

Someone should really get Phil Younghusband into a professional football club. He needs the added playing time to condition himself. It seems like the only time he maximizes himself is during a match, hence the high risk of injury. Also, Phil, for the love of all things fluffy, pass the damn ball. I do like his hot pink boots, however. They’re so gay, I love them.

Ray Jonsson was stellar at left back. Note how Kuwait looked to attack on the right wing in the first half. They made the adjustments in the second half and attacked on the left wing more, which leaves me to point out…

That prior to the match, we are told that Rob Gier would partner with Anton del Rosario at the back. But lo and behold, surprise, surprise, it’s del Rosario at the right back and Jason Sabio at center back. Guess who exploited that? Sabio, I know you’re a smart cookie, but please do consider prioritizing law school.

Angel Guirado Aldeguer is one hard man. Chieffy Caligdong and James Younghusband sure had their work cut out for them running the flanks.

What I find a bit disturbing, and I know I’m not the only one (if only my Twitter timeline could be heard, it was exploding and imploring for substitution calls), is that there were no substitutions made earlier on in the second half, even when it was apparent that the team was tired and making mistakes. Simon Greatwich and Misagh Bahadoran were put in the game at the start of injury time already, and Greatwich’s contribution was another unnecessary yellow card. Sure, we had a solid game plan for the first 45 minutes, but what happened when the opponent made the adjustments and got us heavily punished for it?

Still, let’s not take away credit to the fact that the Philippines showed that it can play with one of the toughest, biggest powerhouses in Asia, even for 45 minutes. Sure, we’re in a hole that’s about three goals deep, but hey, the Scouser in me will tell you to remember the Miracle in Istanbul.

There’s justification in reasonably believing in miracles in a football. You can have that, because you finally have a national team that can make you believe. It’s a huge deficit to overcome, but those who truly understand would recognize valiant effort when it’s displayed. Brazil is a long way to go, but this really is the start of our dreams on the world stage. Let’s just not lose momentum.

What you would get wet for.

It seems to have been divine providence that the rains started the moment last Sunday’s match between the Philippines and Sri Lanka started. For us lowly people in the bleachers (you’ll find out soon enough why I refuse to fork out four digits for a ticket to watch the national team), it was either a mad dash for whatever could be turned into cover or a resignation of being just as soaked as the players were.

But really, it was all just varying degrees of wetness, especially when puddles were forming in the seats and a shallow river runs along the bottom step.

There are a few instances when I would happily bask in the rain, and this match was one of them.

I know I tend to be critical of this national team, but I do think that they did what they ought to be doing more consistently during last Sunday’s match. Whatever magic beer they drank in Germany to be a more cohesive unit was finally showing its potency. The team’s passing in general showed that they are now reading each other’s moves.

Chieffy Caligdong opened the scoring at the 19th minute, off a header from Fluffy Phil Younghusband, who scored a goal of his own at the 43rd minute (credit that as well to a lucky break, with the ref deciding on his favor). Angel Guirado Aldeguer followed with a brilliant goal at the 51st minute, off an assist from James Younghusband. Fluffball Younghusband got a brace after he netted his second goal off a penalty kick at the 57th minute.

Sure, the scoreline read 4-0 at the final whistle, and the scoring could have even been a wider margin, with a host of opportunities presenting themselves to the PHI NT. While the strikers and wingers have displayed the hunger for those goals, it surely can tremendously help when they are smarter about plays—don’t go for the goal by yourself when the better thing to do was to pass to the other guy who may be in a better position to score.

The defense has been pretty solid in this game (thank you, Rob Gier), even if Sri Lanka looked to capitalize on their perceived weakness from the first leg. Paul Mulders is still pretty much on attack mode though, but a fit Angel Guirado Aldeguer has been helping out as well. Stephan Schröck, Manuel Ott, and Mulders all displayed their skills. One note though on the defense, it seems that they can’t manage to easily clear the ball during corner kicks, despite their distinct advantage in size and height over the Sri Lankans.

Borromeo and Schröck had pretty good games… until they got those yellow cards that could easily have been avoided. Borromeo for an unnecessary tackle, and Schröck for that scary-devil-wide-eyed-flaring-nostril-bull-charging head-to-head lock with a Sri Lankan diver (the South Korean ref had to grab Schröck by the neck to push him away). This is a lesson for the team—all other teams that would face you in the future would now know that you guys find it difficult to keep your emotions in check (this also goes to squabbling siblings on the pitch, over who the penalty taker would be), and they will try their damn hardest to push your buttons and throw you out of focus.

That said, it still is the time to bask in a historic victory (I write historic with reservations—historic as an advancement to the second round, but still small fry in the greater scheme of things). No Borromeo and Schröck in the next match versus Kuwait should make for an interesting starting XI.

MOTM: I’d have to give it to Chieffy Caligdong. (Sorry, Fluffy, not you. Maybe next time. I’d rank Angel Guirado Aldeguer over you, actually.)
Highlight of the Match: El matador goal celebration between Angel the matador and Chieffy the malnourished bull
Flops of the Match: Whoever decided to blare that stupid PBB song on the loudspeakers and the two girls that found their way next to me, who did nothing but shrilly scream, “GO NEIL!!!!” even if the action was on Manjula Fernando’s goal, and who kept asking, “Sino ba yung #6?” (I could not help myself and snapped, “Gener!”)
The Shirt I May Consider Wearing for the Next Match:

1.5 and that little qualifying match.

There are a few things  where 1.5 appears. That includes Coca-Cola bottles, car engines, and my UP course cards. Not in football and certainly not involving away goals.

Let me try to explain it the best way I can. In football, there are stages where teams play in a home-and-away format (a game each in the teams’ home turfs), and it is in this format that the away goals rule applies. Essentially, it is a tie-breaker, wherein every goal that a team scores in its opponent’s home ground counts as double, in the event that the aggregate score (total scores of both games added together) is equal. No half-points, no need to add fractions.

(My beef with a certain “journalist” is that after it was pointed out to her that she was feeding the wrong information to her Twitter followers, she was very dismissive about it. What is wrong with admitting that you were wrong? To save face? Clearly, this woman is in a position to educate people about football, but honestly, which self-respecting “journalist” would cover the sport and not bother to read its rules. No, she just has to set an example of being dismissive. Hubris much.)

Now onto that little qualifying match that marks the start of a long journey to Brazil in 2014.

In the lead-up to this match, we learn that Sri Lanka had several of its national team players suspended for match-fixing and that this team barely had two weeks to prepare for this match. Given that situation, it is not far off to assume that they would assume a highly defensive strategy, attempting to prevent the Philippines from scoring. This was particularly evident in the first half of the match, where they pretty much succeeded in frustrating the PHL NT. I recall there was a fracas that led to several yellow cards, and this pretty much disrupted whatever the PHL NT had going on for them.

(My man *snort*) Phil Younghusband had a couple of opportunities to score, but was not able to finish. I heard he was injured prior to the match. So, will he play on Sunday and should I wear his shirt?

I still don’t get the reason why Paul Mulders was fielded as a left back, when he is a right-footed attacking midfielder. I do remember Sri Lanka attacking more on his side than on Anton del Rosario’s, and there was even an instance when Chieffy Caligdong tracked all the way back to help in defense because Mulders could not yet curb his attacking tendencies and was nowhere near where he was supposed to be. To his credit, Mulders settled into his role in the second half.

So yes, Sri Lanka scored a goal toward the end of the first half, off a direct free kick that was slightly deflected off Rob Gier as he attempted to clear it. I think this is the first time I saw a game of PHL NT that Gier played and I did not have the level of confidence in the back four that I normally have (reckon Jonsson missing is the reason why). The Philippines equalized a few minutes into the second half, thanks to Nate Burkey. But of course, Chieffy Caligdong played a key role in that sequence—ah, Chieffy, where would this NT be without you?

As for Angel Guirado Aldeguer, I do think his frustrations got the best of him in the first half, and in the second half, it felt like I was watching him visibly struggle. He’s definitely playing hurt, as he’s not in his usual all-over-the-pitch-taking-on-the-entire-opposition self.

Now let’s dedicate the last paragraph to Stephan Schröck. The guy was a revelation in this match, and he was able to single-handedly slice the Sri Lankan defense, creating much needed opportunities. However, there’s still room for improvement, as when he’s not breaking down the opposition’s defense, he still loses the ball in midfield. Schröck and Manuel Ott also need to improve their cohesion with Caligdong and James Younghusband (understandably so). I’d name Schröck my MOTM, but with reservations, but if you compare his performance with the rest of the team, he’s clearly distinguished himself from the other 10 in this match.

Now let’s go back to that 1.5 points. There’s no need to get fixated over it, as we still ought to aim for a win. A lesson learned once more in this match: our opponents scouted us well, and we seem to have underestimated them. That said, the optimism for Sunday’s match remains high.

See you at Rizal Memorial Stadium on Sunday, chicos.