Underneath the sign, in typical Scouse humour, somebody – obviously a fan of the Mighty Reds – scribbled this rejoinder, “Play St. John on the wing.” No, the reply was not being sacrilegious. Liverpool FC, at the time, had a winger by the name of Ian St. John.
Giving the same question a more contemporary twist – i.e. in the context of the Southeast Asian Games opening match – if the question was “What would you do if Jesus Christ played for Vietnam,” there can but only be one answer to that question.
Well, of course he did; and how Vietnam managed to win by only 3 goals to 1, you can all put down to Roland Müller. To put things plain and simply, the lad’s brilliance was out of this world!
Twice, he saved from point blank range. He also grabbed a cross coming in low and hard from the right in the second half to prevent an almost certain goal. When the Vietnamese lofted balls high into the box, he plucked these from the air with an assuredness that almost bordered on the arrogance, as though announcing to anyone in the vicinity that “the ball belongs to me, thank you very much!”
Indeed, so good was Müller that when he was finally beaten – in the 58th minute – the header almost inevitably did not come from a Vietnamese head. The goalscorer was a certain Matthew Hartmann; and yes, he was playing for the Philippines.
To be fair, Müller had absolutely no chance with the goal; and had Hartmann elected to leave the ball, it would have been a routine catch for Müller. But, of course, these things happen in football.
And just to reinforce the déja vu, Manny Ott capped a 9-hour flight from Germany by being at the end of a Mark Hartmann pass to open the scoring for the Philippines in the 36th minute. Against the run of play, of course; and Vietnam would have been feeling hard done by. Not that any one of us cared, though.
That the Philippines hit a post in the 50th minute gave one the feeling that lightning would – indeed – strike twice. But of course, Vietnam by this time had had just a little bit of all of us and decided to pay us back for our utter nerve almost a year ago in Hanoi. I do not think that anyone in red shirt minded that the equalizer, when it finally came, was off a Filipino head.
There was not just a bit of irony in that equalizer. Neckson Leonora was being eaten up alive at leftback as early as the first half; and might as well have laid out a welcome mat in the second. How the first Vietnamese goal could come from the opposite flank is just football for you. But somebody – anybody – please teach Leonora to play tight on the winger if our own winghalf has not tracked back to support him!
By the 72th minute, the Vietnamese finally gained just reward for their enterprise. Even then, Müller did his part by punching out when in a one-on-one with a Vietnamese striker. Professional defenders instinctively rush to the goalline when the goalkeeper leaves it. As things were, we had an open goal when Müller’s punch fell invitingly to a Vietnamese midfielder.
Stepping back from the match – and I understand that this was a younger Philippine team that we all just saw – the loss was probably down to a tactical breakdown in the second half. In Hanoi, we kept our defensive shape all game long, allowing Vietnam to pass to the death without unduly troubling Neil Etheridge. At the Bung Karno this evening, the fact that we all saw so much of Roland Müller was because he was not being given the protection that he deserved.
It was obvious that our midfield started to lose steam early in the second half. While the quality of Japanese opposition during the buildup to this tournament was probably what team management desired, perhaps the abrupt climate change was not necessarily to our favour.
We all know that Michael Weiss probably likes to play with a higher defensive line. The problem always with this is that defenders invariably have to sprint back to recover the very same space that they give up when pushing forward; and facing their own goal at that which is never an advantageous position for defenders.
At the end of the day, the team probably lacks the towering and authoritative presence of the tall central defenders that we have begun to take so for granted with the senior team. Even the offside trap was leaky, to say the least. Although the officiating was far from being spot on, frequently the loose traps we set were just plain lazy defending.
At least, we can all say that we got the difficult one out of the way. There will be a three-day rest before we face Timor Leste. There is time to get better used to the climate and probably get the players to work together so that we do not play so one-dimensionally in our remaining fixtures. Myanmar should be tricky but not unbeatable; and we will have to be utterly foolhardy not to beat Brunei.
The second qualifying spot for the semi-finals is still ours to lose. But first the boys will have to pick themselves up like true fighters do because, often, losing teaches us more about ourselves than winning.
The PHL Under-23 Football Team for the SEAGames
Positives from the Long Teng Cup