MANILA, Philippines – On Tuesday night, March 27, the Philippines came from behind to defeat Tajikistan, 2-1, and qualify for the final stage of the championship for Asian national teams in the United Arab Emirates in January. The Philippines finished top of their group with 12 points with the victory in front of over 4,600 fans in Rizal Memorial.
A maiden AFC Asian Cup berth was denied them in 2014 when they lost the Challenge Cup final to Palestine. The Azkals finally got the job done on Tuesday. Here are my thoughts on an unforgettable evening.
Simone Rota and Carli De Murga are the inspirational figures in a backline that did enough for 3 points.
I know two folks who are probably overjoyed right now but might also be kicking themselves a bit. Their names are Albert Almendralejo and Maricel Cariaga, co-directors of the documentary entitled “Journeyman Finds Home: The Simone Rota Story.” (READ: Simone Rota finds his home in 'Journeyman' film)
It chronicles Rota's early life in Italy, his longing to visit the land of his birth, his playing for the national team, and return from rib and knee injuries to play for Davao and the Azkals once again.
I can only imagine what is going on through the minds of Cariaga and Almendralejo:
“DAMNIT, why didn't we wait for this game before finishing our documentary!?”
This match would have made a fitting finale as the 33 year-old Rota showed his class with a great 90-minute performance at right back with so much at stake.
Centerback Carli De Murga is also another comeback kid. He has returned from two bad knee injures to not only start for his club, Ceres Negros, but also for the national team in a pivotal game. My favorite moment of the first half was when he chased down Manuchehr Dzhalilov and dispossessed him with a superb tackle.
Neither De Murga nor Dennis Villanueva, the other CB, are natural central defenders. But they did a number on a quick and tall Tajikistan attacking line.
You really have to hand it to De Murga and Rota. To battle back from two catastrophic injuries each to return to this level is astounding. Imagine all of the painful rehab and therapy they had to endure. The months not playing the game. The having to go back to square one for club and country, and fight for their spots. Imagine the incredible self-belief and dedication they both displayed. No doubt this triumph is doubly sweeter for them.
Fittingly another player who was away from the team for two years because of knee injury, Patrick Reichelt, also contributed. The late substitute won the penalty that led to Phil Younghusband's game winner from the spot, his 50th international goal, a remarkable milestone.
Give credit to Thomas Dooley's tactics.
The Azkals came out in what looked to me like a “flat” 4-4-2 with two holding (defensive) midfielders, Kevin Ingreso and Manny Ott, stationed in front of the centerbacks, as opposed to a “diamond” midfield with only one holding. That generally helped clog the middle of the park and limited the chances of the Tajikistan offense. Neil Etheridge looked by far to be the less busy of the two keepers.
The two holding midfielders made sense. We just needed to avoid a concession and we were through. The plan was to make scoring difficult and it worked.
The Philippines also pressed early and often when the visitors had the ball in their defensive 3rd. I don't know if it was intentional but it seemed to result in the Tajiks being tired in the endgame. They looked totally gassed as time ran out, as if there was nothing left in the tank for them to go for an equalizer down 2-1. Just as the North Koreans did two years ago in World Cup qualifying, the Tajiks seemed to wilt in the tropical heat.
I read they had their pre-match camp in China. Maybe they could have had it in another ASEAN country to acclimatize themselves to the conditions.
The introduction of James Younghusband into the game for Misagh Bahadoran also helped loosen up the side offensively as well as give the team some badly needed size up front. Interestingly, this was the exact same substitution Dooley made in 2016 when we beat North Korea in Rizal Memorial.
The crowd was a brilliant 12th man.
The attendance on Tuesday was 4,671. It was far more than the 2,911 that showed for our last home qualifier, against Yemen in October in Bacolod.
I think a confluence of factors helped make this possible. First, it's Holy Week, so more and more folks are not showing up at the office at around this time. Secondly, school's out, so more kids can watch on a weeknight. Thirdly, there was a lot at stake in this match, so interest was understandably high.
But for me the biggest reason is that the Azkals marketing, led by Ceres Lina, started plugging this game early, I believe in early March or even earlier. The social media blitz was impressive, with plenty of reminders on the three major social media platforms. Awareness was good, as evidenced by the crowd that shoehorned themselves into the grandstand. (The bleachers were closed because of a lack of affixed seats. Had the bleachers been open and P50 tickets been sold there, we might have enjoyed a full house.)
But not only did the fans troop to RMS, but they also made themselves heard. There were spontaneous outbursts of cheering rippling through different sections of the grandstand, not just from the side of the Ultras. The cheers were varied too, including the obligatory “uwian na” in the end. The energy was vastly greater than in the Gilas versus Japan contest I attended in February.
The learnings are clear: if you spread the word early the Azkals Nation will fill RMS and make a racket in support of the team. This is especially true if you give them a reason to attend, like if an AFC Asian Cup berth is at stake.
Football has lost some momentum over the years, but for one glorious evening, 2018 was the new 2011.
There are still some questions hanging in the air.
Neil Etheridge did not concede in open play. He delivered another tidy performance in what is becoming a banner year for both club and country.
If all goes to plan his team, Cardiff City, will seal promotion to the English Premier League for the next season. But will the big keeper be allowed to play for the Philippines in January? In the middle of the English season? It all depends on his contract and whatever agreement he might have with Cardiff.
It is not clear if the Asian Cup will be held during FIFA international windows when clubs are compelled to release. It will take a few weeks to run the competition, so I doubt so.
The biennial African Nations Cup is also run at around this time of the year, and African Premiership players are often excused from club duties for it. But that's no guarantee that Etheridge will be permitted to play for the Asian equivalent. The other European-based Azkals like Daisuke Sato and Stephan Palla will also have to sort this out. Asian-based Azkals are likely to be available.
What about the coach? Thomas Dooley has presided over an unbeaten qualifying campaign. Will he get a contract extension through the Suzuki Cup and Asian Cup? Or might the Azkals management feel a new coach could take them further? The next few weeks will be interesting.
Redemption for Kevin, a milestone for Phil.
Kevin Ingreso had a rollercoaster game, giving up a penalty, then making up for it in the best way possible, with a looping header goal from distance, his 3rd Azkal strike.
I have been commentating for Azkals games since 2011. I do not recall the #10 ever missing a penalty. His record from the spot is enviable, and underrated.
But this achievement isn't just about Phil. It's about the collective effort of so many on and off the pitch. Take a bow, Philippine football. We are going to the UAE to face Asia's best next January.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH