COLOMBO—A resilient Philippine side fought back to salvage a 1-1 stalemate against Sri Lanka Wednesday in the first leg of their opening round World Cup qualifying match at the Sugathadasa Stadium here.
Substitute Nate Burkey, making his debut for the Philippines, headed home James Younghusband’s saved header in the 50th minute to give the Azkals a precious away goal heading to the second leg in Manila on Sunday.
An away goal will only count if a two-leg series ends up tied on aggregate, meaning a scoreless draw will be enough for the Azkals to go through to the next round against Kuwait.
Playing their first World Cup qualifying match in 10 years, the Azkals fell behind on the 43rd minute when Pordi Chathura’s 20-yard free kick beat a diving Neil Etheridge to his right.
It was an eerie reminder of the late equalizing goal that the Azkals yielded to Myanmar in the AFC Challenge Cup in March.
After a quiet opening half, the Azkals, egged on by about 200 Filipino supporters in the stadium, came alive in the last 45 minutes, keeping the Sri Lankans on their heels.
Stephan Schrock, making his Philippine debut, was an influential figure at central midfield and his passing constantly opened up the Sri Lankan defense.
But except for Burkey’s goal, the Azkals lacked the clinical finishing touch to punish the Sri Lankans, who refused to back down, making the match a rugged affair.
One such incident came in the 18th minute when Phil Younghusband was fouled by midfield enforcer Fazlur, triggering a scuffle in the middle of the field.
James Younghusband and got yellow cards in the aftermath of the incident. The Azkals had two other yellow cards – Schrock and skipper Aly Borromeo – who were booked for mistimed challenges.
Phil Younghusband had two glorious early chances saved by Manjula Fernando in the first half, before the Filipino-British striker was substituted by Burkey in the 40th minute for what looked like a hamstring injury.
Putting more pressure on the Sri Lankans immediately after the restart, the Azkals were rewarded with Burkey’s scrappy goal.
Chieffy Caligdong, the only homegrown player in the starting lineup, floated a long free kick into the area that was met by James Younghusband, whose header looked to have crossed the line.
Amid the confusion, Burkey was quickest to react and he banged it home for the equalizer.
Schrock, a standout rightback playing for Greuther Furth in the German second division, was still proving dangerous with the ball and his effort from just outside the box just went wide in the 60th minute.
Another chip pass from Schrock offered substitute Ian Araneta with a late scoring chance, but the Air Force striker managed a weak effort that was easily saved by Manjula.
Just when everyone thought the Sri Lankans were playing for a draw, the hosts managed to conjure one more chance when Nimal fired a bristling shot that draw an impressive reflex save from Etheridge in the first minute of injury time.
The Azkals arrive in Manila Thursday night, leaving them with two full days to prepare for the rematch against the South Asians.