12 October 2013

Azkals v Chinese-Taipei: Better in Bacolod Than in the Maldives

It was annoying, to say the least, to see the only piece of silverware that this country owns start to slip out of our grasp right at our first attempt at defending it. Yes, Chinese-Taipei, 34 places lower in the last FIFA Men’s Ranking Table, paid the rankings no attention in fashioning out an opening day grand heist in the 2013 Peace Cup currently being held in Bacolod.

But then again, football is a funny old game; and reputations more illustrious than ours have been torn to shreds before all within the course of 90 minutes. In hindsight, some games just cannot be won; and for the Philippine Azkals yesterday at the Panaad, the one against Chinese-Taipei was one of those.

Chinese-Taipei’s opening goal in the 13th minute, it has to be said, looked glaringly offside. That Li Mao was allowed to slip a badly laid-out trap, however, was just plain lazy defending. There was still work for the Chinese striker to do, but controversy aside, the way he chipped Neil Etheridge for the opening goal was quite exquisite.

Chinese-Taipei’s second and ultimately winning goal in the 65th minute also had preordained written all over it. Coming off a spell of sustained pressure by the Philippines when an Azkals goal seemed likeliest, Chinese-Taipei broke quickly and scored their second of the night.

At the end of the day, the loss was down to an abject lack of striking options. While the midfield was not exactly flowing with creativity – and, indeed, Chris Greatwich and Jerry Lucena are too similar to really flourish together – chances were still being created and all that was lacking was somebody to stick these in.
The name of the goal-scorer was Jason de Jong.

De Jong’s bravado in sliding in to block the shot was commendable; but it was a situation when decorum would have been the better decision as Etheridge had the shot covered all the way. As things were, the ball deflected off de Jong’s arm and away from where Etheridge was waiting to swat it away.

In between the two Chinese-Taipei goals, Patrick Reichelt headed Jeffrey Christian’s cross back across the face of the goal to where the unmarked James Younghusband stooped to head the ball into the net just as first half added time expired.

Perhaps, Chinese-Taipei would not have been celebrating a famous win over the hosts and defending champions had the Philippines managed to put away any of the promising chances that came their way before the visitors scored totally against the run of play.

Angel Guirado, sent through on goal by a measured Stephan Schröck pass in the 5th minute, could have done better than the hurried lob that the goalkeeper easily parried away. Four minutes later, Younghusband snapped at a half-chance from off a corner; but his shot went just wide of the left upright.

A minute later, young OJ Porteria dropped his shoulder and shimmied past a defender before taking a crack at goal. The effort was well-saved. On the other hand, one wondered why Porteria could not have turned right instead to his stronger foot – and a better shooting angle – before despatching his shot.

That opening quarter of an hour, essentially, summed the entire match up for the Philippine Azkals. The chances were not only plentiful; some were embarrassingly harder to miss.

In the 46th minute, for instance, Schröck sent in a glorious freekick which the towering Guirado was always favourite to win. On the other hand, how many six-footers are there in world football who have never really learned to head the ball properly? In retrospect, had Guirado headed the ball in to give the Philippines what would have been a justified lead, perhaps that would have been more surprising.

The game was crying – or at least for the Philippine Azkals – for a Phil Younghusband. The country’s top marksman, however, was injured and had not even suited up for the match. It was just difficult to see what was really a pedestrian Chinese-Taipei defence keeping the other Younghusband out.

It was interesting to see Michael Weiss experiment with a classic tall-small striking partnership featuring Guirado and Porteria. Such a ploy is premised on the tall man being good in the air and the small man feeding off the scraps.

Porteria was tactically right for the position; but since Guirado was never an aerial threat to begin with and preferred to do his work down either flank which arguably is his comfort zone, the experiment was always doomed to fail.

Even had Guirado been known for his heading, such a partnership would have depended on the quality of the crosses being sent in either from down the flanks or deeper diagonally from the backline. As things were, the Philippines were too narrow particularly in the first half and only started to get real width once Chieffy Caligdong and Reichelt were sent in.

At the end of the day, the loss was down to an abject lack of striking options. While the midfield was not exactly flowing with creativity – and, indeed, Chris Greatwich and Jerry Lucena are too similar to really flourish together – chances were still being created and all that was lacking was somebody to stick these in.

How comforting it would have been to have a Dennis Wolf to call on in the absence of Phil Younghusband. Young Porteria was probably not having as dandy a game as he himself would have wanted; but it was still mystifying that he was withdrawn so early from the match. What odds were there on him poaching a goal later compared to Guirado?

The silverware is not lost yet; albeit, we are left to count on the Pakistanis to do us a favour. While the loss to Chinese-Taipei was annoying, it was also a timely knock on the head that reminds the players that we will not win the Challenge Cup next year – a potential stepping stone to the prestigious Asian Cup – just by being there.

There will be work to do; and, in a way, it was always better to lose in Bacolod than in the Maldives.

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