The Philippines’ chances to advance to the next stage of the World Cup qualifiers took a serious blow when they lost to Bahrain, 2-0. It was a very lackluster performance by the Azkals, who never seemed in control of the game.
Here are my three key impressions from the match.
Boy, did we need Javier Patino tonight.
While a player like Phil Younghusband used to be enough to make opposing defenses in South East Asia nervous, he is now playing against teams who are used to a much higher level of competition. That’s one major reason for Phil Younghusband’s recent goal drought (the other being his changed role on the team) and why Javier Patino is now even more important to the Azkals’ fortunes. But while Phil Younghusband may have been found lacking, he still played well. Just not good enough to be the main man that he used to be.
In this game, it was Stephan Schrock who starred for the Azkals, who continually pressed the Bahraini defense, and who was able to get into most dangerous places. Unfortunately, every one else seemed out of sync and Shrock’s effort went to naught.
The Azkals also need improved play from players like Patrick Reichelt and Kevin Ingreso, who are getting a lot of chances because of the unavailability of other players. In today’s match, they barely made their presence felt, which became even more noticeable when the entry of players like Misagh Bahadoran and Paul Mulders suddenly made the Azkals attack more potent and energetic.
THE BACKLINE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Our old reliable backline was really getting old and the time has come to make the transition to a younger one. So I’m not going to make too much of a fuss about our backline composed of youngsters like Daisuke Sato and Amani Aguinaldo, especially with Jerry Lucena still there as a veteran presence and Stephan Palla as the exciting newcomer.
But I do have to say that sometime between the first and second goals, I started wishing Rob Gier and Juani Guirado were there on the pitch, stabilizing our defense. It’s something that goes with experience and pitch knowledge. Sometimes, you can’t keep on making up for your teammate’s mistakes. Sometimes, you all have to man up and take care of your patch of ground. The backline of Gier, Guirado and Lucena used to specialize in that. There were rarely any mistakes to cover up so they each just staked their defensive claim on their patch of the field and threw every challenge back.
Between the sticks, Neil Etheridge gets a solid B+. He made no mistakes, made two great saves and was generally in control. Unfortunately, the Azkals’ defensive lapses kept putting Etheridge in no-man’s land and he paid dearly with the first goal. The second goal was just pure genius from Bahrain’s Adnan Hussain, and no one could be blamed for that. Not Bahadoran, who gave up the foul so close to the goal, nor the Azkals wall which jumped high to deny the over-the-top kick, nor Etheridge, who tried to make a diving save.
It could have been the extreme change in weather. And the long journey. And the change in time zone. And the toll of playing two hard fought, high quality matches in just a week’s time. For whatever reason, the Azkals team tonight looked tired right from the very start.
While the Bahrainis were pressing wildly all over the field, the Azkals played with more control. However, that control soon turned into passiveness, as they kept losing balls to the Bahrainis and kept losing their marks when Bahrain pressed their attack.
The Azkals were actually very lucky tonight, because the Bahrainis didn’t have their shooting touch either. In the first half alone, Bahrain screwed up two 1-on-1 situations with Etheridge, first shooting the ball wide, then shooting it over the bar. There were another 3 instances in the second half when Bahrain could have scored but screwed it up instead. Those instances came with the Azkals defense caught sleeping or worse, walking back when they should have been running back.
Believe me, we were lucky to get away with a 0-2 loss. It could just as easily have been a 0-5 loss.
What does this mean for us? Well, our path to the next stage has become like a lottery. Miniscule chances of winning but, if everything goes our way (losses by Uzbekistan and North Korea will be topmost among the things that need to go our way), there’s still a chance. However, much like the lottery, I really wouldn’t go bet on it.
But I still think our next few games will be important and crucial. These will provide our team (and especially our youngsters) with big game experience that may help us qualify in the next round of World Cup qualifiers.
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