MANILA, Philippines - After an encouraging lead-up to the games and a decent start against Singapore, the U23 Azkals have been brought down to earth.
The promise of Monday's gallant 1-0 setback against hosts Singapore was muted by a 3-1 loss to Cambodia on Wednesday. The Philippines play Myanmar on Sunday and duke it out with Indonesia on Tuesday in the final group game.
I'm no math wizard but I believe that the Pinoys have very little chance now of becoming one of the two teams in the group to reach the medal round. They probably have to beat Myanmar and Indonesia heavily then hope for a bunch of draws in other results.
Coach Marlon Maro's team has learned a hard lesson: that speed, fitness, and quickness are the most valuable currencies in international football.
Both Singapore and Cambodia relentlessly harried the U23 Azkals when we had possession. The suffocating pressure of the Lions was handled reasonably well, but the Khmer team's withering press rattled the Filipino midfield. There were more giveaways on Wednesday than at Bimby Yap Aquino's last birthday party.
When opponents have had the ball, speed demons like Cambodia's Prak Mony Udom have thrived.
The squad was lacking in consistency in the two matches, which led to our 0-2 record. Lets examine each phase of the formation up close.
Goalkeeping. Junjun Badelic is great talent who needs seasoning. He has made one great save in each match, a palm-away to the post against Singapore then a flying punch-save on a free kick against the Cambodians.
But Badelic, like many young keepers, has yet to master the art of positioning. He was too far forward in the goal in Singapore, and against Cambodia ineffectively approached Chan Vathanaka while the striker had possession, making it easy for him to poke through for a third goal.
However the Global keeper is becoming more vocal on the pitch, which is great. He even wore the captain's armband on Wednesday. He will have to really step up against a confident Myanmar side that has already downed Indonesia 4-2 and Singapore 2-1. No doubt he will be very busy.
Defense. Ian Clarino is the U23 Azkals' centerback who has started both games. Against Singapore it was Neil Dorimon who rode shotgun with him, and versus Cambodia Ronnie Aguisanda was his partner in central defense.
Clarino did well in the first match, prompting Singapore TV commentator Paul Masefield to tell me that Clarino “is not bad at all. He and Aguinaldo could be good for Filipino football going forward.”
But two days later Clarino's performace was much more ragged as they allowed three goals.
Dorimon was okay against Singapore but Aguisanda replaced him two days later and did surprisingly well, considering he doesn't often play that position for his club, Green Archers United Globe.
Patxi Santos, who started at right back, was stellar against Singapore with a shot on target and two magnificent tackles. But he got injured on Wednesday in the first half and had to be subbed. Richard Talaroc took his place on that spot and struggled at times. I'm hoping Patxi can use the four days of rest to get fit for Sunday.
Shirmar Felongco began the campaign at left back but was deployed in a more central role against Cambodia. Felongco has plenty of pace but sometimes loses awareness of the players he is supposed to be marking. I'd love to see him play upfield at left wing. Unshackled from defensive duties, he could really be a terror down the flanks. But Maro probably needs his speed to shut down opposing attackers.
Should the Philippines play a higher defensive line and try to get Myanmar offside? It's always a risk against a speedy team, but a well-drilled offside trap can frustrate an attacking side. However with many changes in defensive personnel even after just two games, one wonders if that is feasible. Many coaches are loathe to make changes in the back four unless forced to by injury.
Midfield. Will the real Paolo Bugas please stand up? The Global star has shown flashes of brilliance but has at times made some egregious turnovers, like the square pass that resulted in a second-half jailbreak during the Singapore match. He definitely needs to help settle the midfield and whip out the intelligent and well-weighted passes we all know he can make.
His FEU partner, Arnel Amita, was very good against Singapore in controlling possession. Shockingly he didn't make the starting lineup versus Cambodia but did come in as an early sub. Sadly, Amita departed early as well thanks to a second yellow. He can't play on Sunday against the Burmese. We will miss his composure on the ball.
That should mean Daniel Gadia starts in holding midfield. The UP Maroon recovered from a weak outing against Singapore with a better one in the Cambodia game, producing two incisive forward passes.
But the biggest revelation of these two games has been Paolo Salenga. The former NU Bulldog, now with Global, put the finishing touch on a great team goal against Cambodia and also provided the service for Santos' near-strike in the first game. He also raised eyebrows when he outfoxed the Singapore captain on the goal line in the first game. Salenga has definitely exceeded expectations.
Central midfielder Fitch Arboleda started the lead-up to our only goal and must also shine if we are to get points from the last two games.
Forwards. Jinggoy Valmayor worked very hard against Singapore but only had one misdirected header to show for it thanks to some excellent defending. Against Cambodia Maro replaced him with Kennedy Uzoka, who perhaps brings a bit more speed to the table. Salenga also appeared to be the center forward at times.
I'd like to see Connor Tacagni, the Filipino-Brit who helped San Beda to the NCAA title this year, be given a chance to prove he is good enough for the international game.
On Sunday the Philippines should expect to see more of the same: intense pressure and breakneck speed in attack from the Burmese. The defense must be organized and alert. The midfield has to release the ball early, keep possession and help create chances for the forwards.
One thing that we must say about this team is that they appear to be very committed to a possession-based style of play. Maro seems to frown on the speculative long-ball, which is good. The team is tactically cultured at least in that respect.
So far the tournament has brought nary a point for the Philippines. But the side has 180 minutes to salvage, at the very least, some pride in this SEA Games.
PHILIPPINES U23 SEA GAMES SCHEDULE
Sunday, June 7, 8:30 pm
Philippines vs Myanmar
Tuesday, June 9, 8:30 pm
Philippines vs Indonesia
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.