Azkals vs Bahrain preview: A whole new ball game
Bahrain vs Philippines
2018 FIFA World Cup/2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifier
LIVE on ABS-CBN Sports+Action
10:45 pm, Tuesday, October 13
“Our plan was just to survive,” said Azkals coach Thomas Dooley after last Thursday's terrific goalless standoff in Pyongyang.
Sans a broadcast of the game, (Twitter was the only way to follow it), one sensed that the game was no thing of beauty. Eyewitnesses reported that the Philippines were out-possessed in the second half but repulsed withering Korean pressure thanks to tenacious defending by Amani Aguinaldo, Jerry Lucena, and Luke Woodland. Neil Etheridge supposedly rebounded from a tough night in Uzbekistan with a better outing against Korea DPR.
The Chinese referee played 8 minutes of stoppage time, a ridiculously long amount for a scoreless half. Cedelf Tupas reported that perhaps it was because the Philippines were in no hurry to take set plays and generally did their share to milk the clock.
The intent was to get out of Dodge with a result. That aim was achieved, and the team has a nice boost in confidence going into Tuesday's clash against Bahrain.
But now a simple point will not suffice. In fact, neither will a narrow win. If the Azkals dream of selfies in front of the colorful onion domes of Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral 3 years hence, a decisive win is what they need. What dictates this arduous assignment is simple arithmetic.
The qualifying field in Asia is now down to 39 teams, (after FIFA suspended Indonesia), split into 8 groups. Apart from group F, every group has five teams. The group winners and the best 4 second-placers proceed to the subsequent qualifying group stage for the World Cup and also punch tickets to the 2019 Asian Cup final stage in the United Arab Emirates. So if we can't rule our group H, the best we can do is finish a strong second place.
In our group Korea DPR, despite the dropped points last week, are still sitting pretty atop the table with 10 points. Uzbekistan, who mowed down Bahrain last Thursday in Bahrain, have 9. Then comes the Pinoys with 7 points and Bahrain with 3. Yemen holds the table up with nary a point from 4 outings.
On Tuesday DPR host the Yemenis and will most likely win comfortably. They will thus vault to 13 points. Uzbekistan is the only group H side who will be idle this week. We can overtake them with a win but they will have a game in hand. They entertain the North Koreans then travel to Qatar for a game with Yemen next month.
The Philippines has two wins, a loss and a draw for 7 points, but almost as important is the unimpressive goal difference of -1. Therein lies the problem. Not only are we competing against Uzbekistan and Korea DPR, we are also angling for a place in the next round with the potential second-placers from all the other groups. Here is how the other second-placers in the other groups stand. (Everyone except the teams in group F have played four games.)
Group A: UAE, 7 points, +10 GD
Group B: Australia, 9 points, +7 GD
Group C: Hong Kong, 7 points, +8 GD
Group D: Oman, 8 points, +3 GD
Group E: Syria, 9 points, +10 GD
Group F: Iraq, 5 points, +4 GD
Group G: Kuwait, 9 points, +11 GD.
Yikes. Only Iraq, Hong Kong, and the UAE don't have more points than us, and everyone has a superior GD. How about the other third-place squads jockeying for those four second-place berths?
Group A: Palestine, 5 points, +5 GD
Group B: Kyrgyzstan, 5 points, +1 GD
Group C: China, 7 points, +8 GD
Group D: Guam, 7 points, -4 GD
Group E: Singapore, 7 points, +4 GD
Group F: Vietnam, 4 points, level on GD
Group G: Lebanon, 6 points, level on GD
Okay, no one in this bunch has more points than us, but ONLY ONE TEAM, Guam, has an inferior goal difference. Ugh.
Two things to take away from this accounting: 1), our being in a Group Of Death bereft of a true whipping boy has hurt us in terms of GD. (For example, group C doormat Bhutan has leaked 32 goals in four outings.) And 2), that ugly 5-1 rout at home to Uzbekistan, a nightmarish four-goal GD reversal, is coming back to haunt us.
After the Azkals play Bahrain on Tuesday they host Yemen on November twelve. Then we face Uzbekistan in Tashkent on March 24and then meet Korea DPR in Rizal Memorial 5 days later. So it's simple, really. These next two games are the soft part of our remaining schedule. We need to stockpile wins and goals in the next two months if we want to proceed to the next round. And that must start on Tuesday.
We shouldn't just beat Bahrain, we should beat them silly. We should force Bahraini keeper Sayed Jaffar to fish the ball out of his net again, and again, and preferably, again. And if possible, again after that.
Whatever game plan Dooley had in mind for Pyongyang is now very much in the wastebasket. Dooley can be a very attack-minded coach, but on Thursday he showed he could hack out a cynical, hard-won, attritional point on the road. Now he has to pull out all the stops and stand on the throttle once more.
Some coaches winced at Dooley's 3-defender backline that surrendered meekly against the Uzbeks. But on Tuesday we thank our lucky stars that we have such a high-octane formation. A 3-4-3 (5-3-2 on defense), seems suited for this assignment. But Dooley might want to make some tweaks, like perhaps sending Phil higher upfield so he can add to his international tally of 42 goals.
There is good news in the person of Simone Rota. The defender, who hurt his ribs in the UFL semifinals, is finally fit and in Bahrain. (An inability to procure a visa late seems to have scuppered attempts to get him to Pyongyang.) Rota is an option coming off the bench and could even supplant Lucena or Aguinaldo in the start list. If he is fit, he might be a tad quicker than Lucena.
Yes, we need to score, but we need veterans like Rota to shore up the defenses as well. But at the same time, will Dooley really want to mess with a defense that played so heroically last Thursday?
The match is technically a road game, but it might not feel like one. Judging from the highlights of the Bahrain-Uzbekistan encounter last week in Riffa, quite a number of Bahrainis had better things to do on Thursday night than cheer on their national team on in a World Cup Qualifier. Have a look.
So the Pinoy fans from our diaspora just might outnumber the home team's supporters tonight. Our team might feed off their energy.
Looking back, it's amazing what the Philippines has done this year under Dooley's stewardship: a pair of wins against two gulf nations and a draw in hostile Pyongyang. But a new hurdle presents itself to the Philippines on Tuesday. Lets hope Dooley's team has the firepower to make the leap. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.