17 February 2012

Azkals Lose to Roos; But Don’t Blame Araneta

Ian Araneta was the object of an overnight online vitriol storm on Twitter and Facebook on the aftermath of the Philippines’ 0-1 loss to the Olympic national football team of Australia. I did not bother catching the match live since it was a friendly, anyway. That was why I was anxious to catch the replay this afternoon to see what Araneta could have done this time to deserve such ridicule and animosity.

Frankly, the only conclusion that I arrived at after having watched the replay is that supporters of the game in this country still have a long way to go before gaining a full appreciation of the beautiful game. I thought all of the vitriol aimed at Araneta was unfair and so totally undeserved.

First of all, Michael Weiss set the Philippine team out to play similar to the way we shaped up against the Qatari Club Al Ahli last Monday. That is, compact in midfield and in defence and obviously designed to play a counterattacking game. I have no problems with this. I am of the opinion that we are better suited to play this way so I welcomed the fact that Weiss is starting to get comfortable with a style of play quite opposite to what we had seen him use initially.

What I had issues with was that we sat back too deep in the first half and were unable to make the transition from defence to offence with the same speed, precision and seamlessness that we displayed against Al Ahli. Frequently, it was either Dennis Wolf or Araneta chasing after long balls and forced to go solo, since midfield support was often not coming.

To get back to Araneta, how could he have been the object of so much criticism when the passes that were given to him were often inaccurate? He was hardly ever on the ball; and on the few occasions that passes to him were completed, he was without support.

I can even argue that it was a mistake to start with him in place of Phil Younghusband, who had flown home. To begin with, Araneta is more the target man who is best playing with his back to the goal in or around the penalty area. That is the role that he plays when with his club, the Air Force Phoenix.

Since it was Wolf who was leading the attack, Araneta was in fact asked to drop down into midfield when the Aussies had the ball. This is something that I personally think Araneta is neither cut out for nor comfortable with. In all fairness to Araneta, I thought that he worked hard in an unfamiliar role.

Then, since our team set out to camp deep inside our own half, it goes without saying that the opposing defence would push up to narrow the space between it and midfield. This meant that there would be acres of space behind it, something that could have been exploited by accurate over-the-top passes chased by fleetfooted strikers.

Does anyone really think Araneta is the sort who can chase after those over-the-top balls? Seriously!? I mean, Wolf played well and worked hard; but I do not think that he is quick enough to chase after those balls, either.

On the other hand, Joshua Beloya – who introduced himself to the football public in the Southeast Asian Games and who has been setting the UFL alight – has the pace, strength, control and shot to take advantage of such passes and would have been excellent for a counterattacking game. Yet, he was not introduced until the 72nd minute.

In fact, the Philippines’ best chance of the game fell at Beloya’s feet. It was a well-worked freekick routine that, regrettably, he sent into Row Z. Who knows how much better he could have done with that swivel-and-shot had he been introduced earlier and allowed time to settle into the game?

At any rate, for all its possession in the first half, I thought that the Aussies were poor. They did score through Jason Hoffman in the 11th minute; but even that was gift-wrapped. The Philippines’ defence, which was outstanding all game long, was at sixes and sevens for just a moment and that was all it took for the Aussies to win the match.

Carlos de Murga was easily rounded on the left flank; a cross was delivered that should have been dealt with more firmly. Instead, Juan Luis Guirado in trying to clear only succeeded in helping the ball onto to an unmarked Hoffman, who took the gift with gusto.

Other than this, Neil Etheridge – who flew out to Dubai just for this match – was called to action only to tip a shot-cum-cross from the left that really was not much of a threat over the bar; and to comfortably collect what ultimately turned out to be a lame Aussie freekick from a promising position.

In fact, the Aussies did not really carve out really dangerous chances until late in the match. The first came in the 80th minute, when a shot was curled in from the right that cleared Etheridge’s far post by inches. Another shot two minutes later flashed just wide of the right upright. Etheridge was at full stretch to push out a wickedly curling freekick; but replays showed that it was heading wide, anyway.

Although the Philippines did not really create a lot in the way of goalscoring chances, at least in the second half it came out prepared to engage the Aussies with a bit more purpose. While in the first half the Aussies had an almost total monopoly of the ball, in the second the Philippines pressed high on the pitch and won its fair share of possession.

That we did not have more chances to score was probably down to the absence of the Younghusband brothers. Angel Guirado had one of his better matches and his trickery when on the ball was a joy to behold. However, he was playing on the right wing and all his fine work was mostly wasted because he simply does not know how to cross the ball. I do not think James Younghusband would have been as wasteful when in the positions that Guirado got himself to.

The Philippines might have ended its Middle East tour with a loss; but I thought that even this loss to the Aussies gives everyone so much to look forward to. We were by no means at full strength; so who knows what the result might have been if we had our injured players back and if those playing for European clubs were released?

Instead of getting on Araneta’s back, I prefer to look at the positives: the arrival of Juan Luis Guirado, a tall and natural central defender; a return to compact defending and swift counterattacking; and the growing confidence of newcomers like Ruben Doctora and Marwin Angeles. Bring on the Challenge Cup!

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