Plenty of positives for the Azkals despite the loss

 

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Neil Etheridge's stock has tripled in value. After the game Uzbekistan coach Samvel Babayan called Etheridge a “hero” for his double-digit haul of saves on Thursday, March 24 in the Azkals’ 0-1 loss to Uzbekistan. He probably isn't the only one who took notice.

Neil has told me that he wants to play “at the highest level” and that he believes he can do it. Neil must be referring to the English Premier League, where he suited up, but never got any league appearances for, Fulham.

This is not a far-fetched ambition for Neil. His club side, Walsall, currently sit third in Football League One, level on 68 points with Wigan Athletic, but with a lesser goal difference. League One is the third tier of football in England. Atop the table is Burton Albion at 74 points. Walsall have allowed 38 goals in 37 games, tied with Bradford City for third-best in the division. They have 9 more to play in the season.

Walsall could very well get promoted to the the second-tier Championship next year, just a heartbeat away from the Premier League. If he gets established as a Championship keeper, then he could easily get on the radar of top-tier sides.

But now much of Asia, (and all of Uzbekistan), has seen his quality. Neil looked razor-sharp in his reflexes and made some lovely stretch-out parries as well. 

Neil can certainly play in the AFC Cup, the second level of Asian club football. In fact, the more prestigious AFC Champions League might be even better suited for his standard. Uzbekistan teams play in that competition. 

Etheridge has expanded his options with this stellar evening. Now he can continue playing in England or perhaps attract a lucrative offer from a wealthy club in the Gulf region, Iran, Central Asia, Thailand, or even Japan. The fact that he counts as an Asian helps. Clubs in the AFC Cup and AFC Champions League can only use 4 foreigners on the park at any given time, but one must be Asian. Neil allows them to have a European-standard goalie without burning a non-Asian slot. That leaves more positions open on the field for top Africans, Brazilians and Spaniards. 

If he does come to Asia, it will be a boon for Neil's international career. Having our number one goalkeeper just a few hours away by plane for Azkals matches would be a glorious thing. It's better than him having to schlep over all the way from the UK. So the repercussions of this terrific evening in Tashkent, despite the loss, could be far-reaching. 

The referee had every right to send off OJ Porteria in the tenth minute. Yes it was soft. Yes, other referees could have just shown him a yellow. Yes, Nigel De Jong only received a yellow in the World Cup Final Match for this against Xabi Alonso, which surely was worse.

 

But FIFA's Law 12 is clear, that “serious foul play” is punishable by a dismissal. Page 63 of this PDF shows what “serious foul play,” defined as “excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play,” looks like.

Both examples of “serious foul play” are “plantsas,” or studs-first challenges on opponents; legs or feet. Just like what Porteria did. 

OJ's foul is not particularly malicious, and he is going for the ball in my opinion, he just gets there an instant late. But it is a studs-first challenge, and Ryuji Sato the Japanese ref unhesitatingly brandished his red rectangle. It's one of the quickest red card dismissals I have seen recently. 

Yes, another official could have shown him a yellow and there could have been few complaints from the Uzbeks. But Porteria gave the referee a reason to send him off. And he did. The Philippines were pretty much toast from that point on. 

What a rollercoaster the youngster has ridden. Porteria was the hero two weeks ago with his last-gasp winner for Kaya versus New Radiant in the AFC Cup. Now, after being handed a rare start, he is gone in 10 minutes and cannot play against the Koreans on Tuesday. But that's football and that's life. The silver lining is that he is wiser now for this experience. 

The youth movement is on. Uzbekistan brought on experienced subs, like the brilliant Alexander Geynrikh. Thomas Dooley went with youngsters in Dennis Villanueva, 23, Daniels, 21, and debutante Dominic Del Rosario, 19 years old. 

This is one of the youngest Azkals squads in memory. Juani Guirado, 36, and Rota, 31, were the oldest players on the roster. Patiño and Iain Ramsay, both 28, were the next-oldest. 

The subs failed to make an impact against a home side, but that's okay. These kids, some of which will play for us in next year's SEA Games, have more big-game experience under their belts now, which will hold us in good stead going forward. 

How about that stadium? Okay, I am a bit of a stadium fetishist, but please indulge me here. The Bunyodkor is a beauty. 

“Who doesn't want to play in this stadium,” enthused Azkals coach Thomas Dooley in this Instagram post. (I think he meant “wouldn't.”)

 

Who doesn't want to play in this stadium ? A photo posted by Thomas Dooley (@dooleytd5) on Mar 23, 2016 at 2:33am PDT

This 4-year old facility has so many virtues. First, it's football-specific, so no running track. The fans are close to the action. The seating areas are curved, so even if you're perched near the end of the pitch, your seat is canted towards the middle of the field. The capacity of 34,000 is just right. Enough for a big crowd but small enough to be intimate. The roof that wraps around the stadium concentrates the noise and makes for a great atmosphere.

The lighting was superb. Was I the only one who felt like I was watching a UEFA Champions League match? The luxury boxes that ring the field are money-making enclaves for the prawn-sandwich set, a modern touch that can be seen at the Mall of Asia Arena. The seats in the upper ring are both green and white. I suspect that is done to mask low-attendance events. It's harder to notice a sparse crowd when the empty seats are all not the same color.

And it's lovely inside as well. There's a museum that holds the Bunyodkor club's trophies. And the locker rooms are first-class. 

“The changing rooms are very, very nice. Individual lockers with very comfortable, basically sofa chairs,” drooled Kenshiro Daniels via Messenger. The second-half sub also said the grass was “perfect.” 

Can someone please build a stadium like this in the Philippines? It would be heaven for Pinoy football fans. 

The Azkals showed what they are capable of when everything is against them. Playing an opponent that beat them at home 5-1. No Schrock. No Phil. No Misagh. No Ott. No Palla. No Mulders. No Lucena. No Gier. Long travel. Cold and rainy. Hostile, noisy stadium. Down to 10 men after 10 minutes. Final score: 1-0. 

That series of sentences should alone make every Azkals fan proud of the team's performance on Thursday. And it gives us hope going into Tuesday against Korea DPR. With Bahadoran and Ott back, in a tropical climate at home, the Azkals have a decent chance to not only get a result, but all 3 points. 

Bahrain has beaten Yemen 3-0 and have catapulted themselves above us in the standings with 9 points to our 7. But on Tuesday a weary Bahraini team play Uzbekistan in the Bunyodkor a few hours after we face Korea DPR. It's the last match for both. If we can notch the 3 points versus Korea and Bahrain lose, we finish third and make the next round-robin stage for Asian Cup qualifying. 

On Tuesday, we should dare to believe. – Rappler.com 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.