MANILA, Philippines – Sven Goran Eriksson's men succumbed to Kyrgyzstan and bowed out of the AFC Asian Cup winless. But there are positives to take out from our first-ever appearance at this stage.
The team was outplayed but showed character
The Pinoys were unfortunate to encounter Vitalij Lux, a German-raised Kyrgyz striker, in top form. His strikes were ruthless on Wednesday, especially the first, a stunning first-time finish.
His team was much better than the side the Philippines beat twice in 2016. A lot can happen in 3 years. The fitness, discipline, and sheer brute strength played a big difference.
The possession stats were good, with the Central Asians getting more by just a slight margin, 54-46 percent. But the White Falcons made better use of the ball, especially early on. They also did a great job of containing Manny Ott and keeping the dangerous Stephan Schrock in check for a good portion of the game.
Again, defensive lapses did us in, with Lux getting a cross on the first goal after Daisuke Sato was caught tucking-in and leaving his man open. Lux's second goal was a matter of him dropping back to make some space, then receiving a pass and rifling in. No one tracked him well enough. Simple stuff done well.
But I loved the fight in the 2nd half. The Philippines, even when down 2-0, was pushing forward, causing trouble, winning free kicks and corners, and even drawing the occasional card.
There were enough chances. Patrick Reichelt spurned two and Phil Younghusband showed he perhaps deserved more playing time, lashing in a cross that was millimeters from meeting Javi Patiño's forehead.
In my eyes, the team went down swinging, recovering from a poor first half to play with pride.
Schrock's free kick goal was fortuitous, since it bounced just beyond the onrushing peloton of players but just before the area or responsibility of the keeper to sneak in. Lucky? Yes. Deserved, thanks to our pressure? Also Yes.
The shopwindow is open for some Azkals
International tournaments are a way for players to impress scouts and snag a lucrative new contract somewhere higher up the club football food chain.
For me the player who raised his profile the most was goalie Michael Falkesgaard, who was always assured and composed in these 3 games. I don't think he can be blamed in any of the goals allowed on Wednesday. His club, Bangkok United, know they have a winner between the sticks and that there could be offers for his services from other teams.
Another Azkal who shone was Javi Patiño, who may not have gotten on the scoresheet but perhaps deserved to. Opposing goalies got some work thanks to him, and the Buriram striker's quality is now known all over Asia. I wonder if some Korean clubs are interested in him after he played so well against their national team.
Three players who needed the exposure are Phil Younghusband, James Younghusband, and Adam Tull. All 3 were on the books of the now-defunct Davao Aguilas. Tull, according to the pre-game graphics, started at central defender, so he is showing his worth as a true utility player. Let's hope he can get picked up.
The Younghusbands must feel gutted to get limited minutes at a time like this, but that is life and that is football. Phil and James still have quality and we hope they can find a club soon. If a Filipino club doesn't grab them, perhaps one in Malaysia, Thailand, or Indonesia can.
The team is at a crossroads
A look at our roster reveals a cohort of players who are slowly aging. The Younghusbands, Alvaro Silva, Carli De Murga, Stephan Palla, Iain Ramsay, Stephan Schrock, Miguel Tanton, Patrick Reichelt, and Patiño are all 29 years old or older.
With World Cup qualification looming later on in the year, it will be interesting to see how many of these guys will continue playing for the team. Many still have a lot to give. Some will be past their prime in 2022 when Qatar hosts the final stage.
We will need young players like John-Patrick Strauss moving forward. And a clutch of emerging youngsters like Dylan De Bruycker and Jarvey Gayoso bring hope. But veteran leadership is always key in any dressing room. The following months will be crucial.
Time to focus on the rest of Filipino football
The Azkals have done us proud in two major competitions in the last 3 months. Now it's time to pay attention to the rest of Philippine football.
The NCAA season is ongoing in the PFF Artificial Turf Pitch in Carmona. San Beda is gunning for another title, with Arellano giving them a stiff challenge along with upstart Perpetual Help. You can't count out St. Benilde, the defending champs.
The UAAP kicks off the Season 81 seniors competition in February. Expect that on your TV screens soon, as UP hopes to repeat.
The new league replacing the PFL, the Philippine Premier League, will hold a press conference next week. Let's hope it is a more sustainable and successful endeavor than previous leagues.
The AFC Champions League qualifier begins next month with Ceres Negros playing Yangon United on February 5. If the Busmen don't qualify, they drop down to the AFC Cup.
Also in February is the AFF U22 championship in Cambodia. It looks like our squad will have many players who will form the SEA Games team. The Philippines is drawn in a six-team group with Vietnam, Thailand, Timor Leste, Laos, and Brunei. See the schedule here.
Our national women's team will hope to keep their Olympic dream alive in the next phase of qualifiers in early April. This after hurdling the first stage last year.
Let's be grateful for what we achieved in the AFC Asian Cup
Remember that chest-puffy feeling when we only lost to South Korea 1-0? The pride we all felt when we stood toe-to-toe with one of Asia's best? That feeling can never, ever be taken away from us. Not even after a pair of losses afterwards.
This is what we should cherish from this adventure in the UAE. This is what should inspire us going forward. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH