Azkals stay on course in Asian Cup qualification
MANILA, Philippines – The Azkals took another step towards the 2019 AFC Asian Cup final stage with a 1-1 draw on Tuesday night against Yemen in Doha, Qatar.
Mike Ott's dramatic 89th minute goal earned the Pinoys a valuable point.
Here are my thoughts on the match and the campaign.
Thomas Dooley's big calls paid off
The Azkals coach's starting elevens have been notoriously difficult to predict and Tuesday was no different. Sean Kane appeared at centerback beside Dennis Villanueva. This was not only Kane's first selection but also his first-ever start and maiden cap. The JPV Marikina holding midfielder learned his.football growing up in Sweden but also played in the USA.
Kane-Villanueva represents the gazillionth different centerback pairing for the Philippines since last year. It's been necessitated by injuries, (Amani Aguinaldo, Luke Woodland), and retirements (Jeffrey Christiaens).
It was a gutsy move to thrust Kane into the limelight and out of his usual position. Kane usually plays holding mid for JPV but he scooted back in the formation for his country and did a great job tidying up. He will be remembered for that goal line clearance in the second half.
The selection and start of Kane represents a great truth about Dooley: he watches the local top tier, the Philippines Football League, much more than his predecessor Michael Weiss watched the old UFL. That's how he was able to unearth a gem like Kane from a mid-table club like Marikina. Since the Azkals are sorely in need of centerback quality, this is a great find.
The other big move was to haul Paul Mulders out of the "baul", (Filipino for storage trunk), dust him off a bit, and install him at central mid in a flat 4-4-2, a departure from the 3-5-2/5-3-2 they had been playing. The regular starter there, Mike's brother Manny Ott, sadly injured his knee a few days earlier and will be out for a long spell.
Mulders is 36. Surplus to requirements in Ceres last year, the Fil-Dutchman returned to Global this year. The veteran proved that you don't need blazing speed or a world-class work-rate to succeed at this level in the center of the park. Mulders displayed the composure and good-decision-making that got him as far as the Dutch Eredivisie, still one of Europe's top leagues.
In our only goal he was gifted with possession and time near the edge of the box. Instead of having a crack at goal, Mulders spied Ott in the clear and served up a sweet little through ball that the German powered past the Yemeni keeper. It was a great, split-second moment of pure footballing IQ that resulted in zero points turning into one.
Simone Rota, another graybeard who turns 33 next month, was also given a start at right back. Rota's inspiring return to the start sheet after injury was a solid one. But in the second half he gave way to the usual starter, Junior Munoz, whose darting run down the right flank and useful cross in the direction of Phil Younghusband made the late equalizer possible.
Yemen can also blame themselves. They hit the woodwork at least twice, most egregiously in the first half when a blunder by Villanueva was not punished.
But much credit should go to the coach for these courageous moves and crafting a game plan that gave us some neat passing sequences all throughout the game. Dooley is under fire from fans and media alike, but I believe a record of two wins and two draws in qualifying are very good.
The team has gone through a lot for this point
The Azkals are without a major cog in every third of their formation. Aguinaldo is out in defense, Manny Ott is absent in the midfield and striker Misagh Bahadoran is also unavailable with a shoulder injury. Add that to the retirement of Stephan Schröck, injury to Javi Patiño, Martin Steuble not being in the mix and you have, on paper, a recipe for disaster. And yet here we are, top of Group F after four games. Our squad proved to be deeper than many thought.
There was another challenge that the boys overcame on Tuesday. Denrei Catalan is a football-loving Ilonggo from Barotac Nuevo who has been living and working in Qatar for years. He was at the game and said that the temperature during the game reached a high as 37 degrees Celsius, hence the cooling breaks, somewhat unusual for a night time match.
This blistering dry heat should have favored the Yemenis, the nominal home team. But the gulf nation could not capitalize on this advantage. The Azkals matched Yemen in the tempo of the game, a credit to their fitness.
We are in great shape with two qualifying matches to go
The Philippine lead Group F with 8 points from four games. Tajikistan beat Nepal 3-0 on Tuesday, so they tie Yemen on 6 points. In November we play Nepal in Kathmandu and Tajikistan and Yemen tangle.
If we beat Nepal we punch our ticket to the big dance in UAE in early 2019. A win gets us to 11 points, and since the top two sides qualify, Yemen and Tajikistan will need to both win twice to jointly oust us. That's impossible because they play each other.
A win in Nepal will mean the last game, against the Tajiks in Bacolod in March, will be just about us placing either first or second in the group.
But Nepal in the rarefied air of Kathmandu will be no gimme. The team is mulling a camp in Baguio before that game on November 14to acclimatize.
I'm also told that team management is planning, as early as now, to get a stream or maybe even telecast for the game. The stream for Tuesday was announced late and there were some technical problems I was told. November's potentially historic match deserves a big audience.
The result on Tuesday was not a full 3 points, but at least we are inching closer to our AFC Asian Cup dream. – Rappler.com