16 March 2012

Azkals vs Turkmenistan: the Morning After

It is the morning after. A seat in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup turned out, after all, to be a bridge too far. All that was needed for the Philippines was to hang on to the single goal lead for a mere eleven minutes. It is said, though, that it only takes a second to score a goal; and in the ensuing eleven minutes, Turkmenistan contrived to score twice to wreck Filipino dreams of glory.

In retrospect – and to a large extent – this match was not really lost yesterday but, rather, three days earlier when the Philippines played against Tajikistan. Officiating in all matches played by the Philippines had been dodgy at best; but the spate of yellow cards dished out by Japan’s Ryuji Sato – four in all to the Filipinos – in the Tajikistan game was always going to be portentous going into the semi-finals.

All four yellows were soft; but two meant that the Philippines would be without the services of two key players.

James Younghusband may not be your archetypal headline grabber; but he has been among the team’s most consistent performers in recent months. Angel Guirado, on the other hand, blows hot and cold; but he has been hitting a rich vein of form since the Philippines went on a training camp in the Middle East last month.

Then, there was also the loss of Jason Sabio through injury. Misfortune for some, it is said, becomes opportunity for others. While nobody would have wished ill of Philippines captain Aly Borromeo, his prolonged injury and recuperation nonetheless offered Sabio the opportunity to grow in stature and become an authentic international class defender.

Michael Weiss was correct in pointing out that the Philippines could cope with the loss of Sabio and the two suspended players. Indeed, any self-respecting national team ought to have adequate cover for such inconveniences.

On the other hand, the loss of Sabio meant that Juan Guirado had to be pulled back into the back four. This meant that the midfield line of Chieffy Caligdong, Marwin Angeles, Jason de Jong and Misagh Bahadoran looked lightweight in comparison to that which was utilized in the victorious matches against India and Tajikistan.

To be fair, the Philippines took the game to Turkmenistan in the first half and could have well put the game to bed in that period alone with a bit more luck. That said, even that early, there were signs of the midfield being caught upfield and leaving spaces for Turkmenistan to exploit on the break.

Neil Etheridge was increasingly being asked to make interventions and was even well-beaten by a shot that, thankfully, rebounded off the bar. Some of the defending as the half drew to a close, in fact, was reminiscent of the frantic and desperate defending that we all saw in the opening match against DPR Korea.

We were correct, I felt, to sit back as the second half started and allow Turkmenistan to take the game to us. We had the lead, after all; and the onus was always going to be on the opposition to come forward. We were just being pragmatic in defending what we already had in our hands.

Sitting back tight in midfield and in defence, we were limiting Turkmenistan to taking shots from deep in midfield. These were never going to ruffle a goalkeeper of Etheridge’s class. Furthermore, the opposition in pushing forward would naturally leave vast spaces behind, something that could be exploited on the break.

It was the number of players pushing forward to support our counterattacks that I found unnerving. Defending is always immeasurably less physically taxing than attacking; and I was wary that we were unnecessarily expending energy.

The distance that a midfielder or an overlapping fullback has to run when moving forward to support an attack is the same distance that he has to sprint back to recover position if the attack flounders.

Energy used in an unsuccessful counterattack is also energy expended that could otherwise have been used to defend. It goes without saying that energy conserved, whatever a player’s state of fitness, is ultimately going to be crucial in the endgame.

The dilemma that the Philippines faced yesterday was whether to sit back and protect the 1-nil lead or to try and get the cushion of the second goal. Defending a 1-nil lead in a semi-final can be unnerving to an inexperienced team. I feared, however, that in our eagerness to get that cushion, we were also unwittingly surrendering vast spaces in midfield.

That was exactly what happened when Turkmenistan broke to score twice in the final eleven minutes of the match. Prior to the first goal, Marwin Angeles was shown struggling to regain position and even ultimately stopping to leave the defending to Rob Gier and Guirado. One cannot find fault with the boy – he looked knackered!

The situation changed, of course, the moment Turkmenistan equalized. We tried to win the game, which was admirable. However, there was also the option of holding on for just 11 more minutes to get re-hydrated, get fresh instructions, recover our concentration and consequently try to win the game in extra time.

As things were, the Philippines were caught thin on the flank once again prior to Turkmenistan’s winning goal. Roel Gener hung back instead of closing the winger down; but ideally, there should have been another midfielder in support to prevent the cut inside. Here, we all think once again of all the energy expended going forward earlier.

I am not sure that I understood the substitutions, although Weiss would naturally have his reasons. The quality of the live feed from Nepal left a lot to be desired, but it did look like de Jong was sent to play on the right flank after Lexton Moy came in for Bahadoran.

If this was the case, then Moy – more of an attacking midfielder – was probably brought in to help get the cushion of a second goal.

I am fine with this; but I will struggle to understand the logic of asking de Jong to play on the flank. He is a natural holding midfielder best sitting in front of the central defenders. I felt that had he stayed in that position, he would have been able to prevent the shot that gave Turkmenistan the equalizer.

I am also not certain if Gener was brought in to play leftback and Ray Jónsson pushed forward after Caligdong was substituted. I have the greatest respect for Gener, who has been a great servant down the years. However, even in the Malaysia friendly he was exposed time and again on the right flank; so his best years are probably way behind him.

That Jónsson is a stronger defender than Gener is moot and academic. Thus, if Gener was sent in to play leftback, I will struggle to understand the logic of this as well.

Gener would probably have been adequate as a direct replacement for Caligdong and probably even better in support of Jónsson in defending the flank. Defending by himself, though, is an entirely different proposition.

I suppose that it can be said that we were just not meant to get to the final. Que sera, sera, the Spaniards say. What will be, will be.

One day we will not only get to the final of a major international competition; we will also win it. The national team has grown so much over the last year that I even consider it stronger than former champions India and Tajikistan. Yes, I also consider it stronger than Turkmenistan.

What is difficult to take, perhaps, was the surrender of the lead with so little time left to play. Had we been beaten comprehensively, I doubt that any of us would be haunted by what-ifs the morning after.

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