GIVEN up for dead many months ago, the Philippine Men’s National Team wrote its resurrection story and advanced to the AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s premier tournament slated this December.
A point against Cambodia last Tuesday was enough for the Philippines to secure its spot in Vietnam along with host nation Laos, which took the top spot in the qualifying tournament that was decided on goal difference.
The results of the qualification, however, were cause for both celebration and concern.
Azkals to us fans, the Philippines dumped doormats Timor, 5-0, with an Ian Araneta hat trick in the first match, drew the hosts 2-2 in a feisty comeback punctuated with a James Younghusband goal deep into injury time, and held desperate but dangerous Cambodia, 0-0, in the last game.
The result of the first match was expected, since the Azkals were facing a team ranked nearly 50 places lower. The game produced a thing of beauty: the lone second half goal triggered by 20 uninterrupted two-touch passes, save for the final run that unleashed the decisive cross for Araneta’s hat trick off James’ headed pass.
The whole sequence on the 57th minute provided a glimpse of a team’s capacity to mesmerize opponents. But as for beautiful goals, that was it. The Philippine team would score only twice in the scrappiest of ways after that, and it came at the expense of the host nation, which lost a 2-0 half-time lead to settle for a draw.
Scrappy the result against Laos might be, the match revealed character and maturity from the Azkals. It did so against Chinese Taipei in an invitational tourney early this month and repeated the feat against the host nation last Sunday: on the brink of losing, the Azkals clawed for an equalizer until the dying seconds and got one.
The result, of course, made life easier for Coach Simon McMenemy. A draw against Cambodia, which needed a win or an improbable loss by Laos to Timor to advance, would suffice, and most likely McMenemy’s game plan was to carry a defensive mindset, keep errors to a minimum, and stick to counter attacks.
Still delirious from the results of the first two games, the fans wanted that, too, and then some. But what we saw during the last game against Cambodia forced us to come to terms with the truth: the Philippine team is far from becoming the dominant force we imagined it to be.
In its last game, the Philippines allowed Cambodia to harass its defense with an excess of chances. Cambodia was a goal post or a crossbar away from scoring. The Azkals, on the other hand, wasted its counter attacks with absent-minded positioning, a laggardly pace, and terrible finishing. The “better” Azkals team, perhaps the imagined one, would have finished off the Cambodians with ease. Instead, the mediocre version was lucky to get away with a draw.
When it heads for the finals of the biennial tournament in the first week of December, the Philippine team will find itself playing on a different level of football against co-host and defending champion Vietnam, Singapore and Myanmar.
In the last AFF Suzuki Cup, powerhouses Vietnam, co-hosts Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia crushed the much weaker qualifying teams (Laos and Cambodia) by four-, five- even six-goal margins. This time, the Philippines faces a similar thrashing.
Among fans and pundits, this is no time for foolish optimism, as the team’s real chances of making an impact are slim. Then again, stranger things have happened in football. Let’s just hope the Philippine team that would show up this December tournament is not the version that plodded against Cambodia but the one that mesmerizes, the one that hungers for goals, the one that claws its way against the toughest of odds, the one we love to imagine.
Sun Star Cebu