Azkals salvage draw against gritty Sri Lanka in World Cup qualifier

Sri Lanka Philippines
Chathura Gunarathna (43′) Nate Burkey (50′)
Nadeeka Pushpakumpara (17′)
Safraz Kaiz (20′)
Anton Nimal Fernando (86′)
James Younghusband (20′)
Stephan Schrock (39′)
Aly Borromeo (65′)

The Philippine men’s national football team encountered surprisingly tough opposition, but managed to salvage a 1-1 result in the first game of its World Cup qualifying tie against Sri Lanka at the Sugathadasa Stadium Wednesday in Colombo.

Nate Burkey tied the game for the Azkals with a header at the 50th minute, a follow-up to James Younghusband’s own header off a curling free kick by Chieffy Caligdong. The goal by Burkey, who came in at the 20th minute after Phil Younghusband injured his hamstring, prevented what would have been a massive upset for Sri Lanka.

The score came after a frustrating first half for the Philippine team, who struggled with the imperfect condition of the pitch and the physical play of the Brave Reds of Sri Lanka. The Azkals looked visibly frustrated, due to muffed scoring opportunities – Phil Younghusband missed three chances at the goal in the first 20 minutes of the game – and the rough play from their opponents. The Filipinos received no favors from the refereeing crew led by Bangladesh’s Tayem Shamsuzzaman, getting docked twice in the first half. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, employed a lightning-quick counter-attacking style that kept the Philippine team honest.

Disaster struck for the Azkals at the 43rd minute when Chathura Gunarathna scored on a free kick, in a play reminiscent of the goal given up by the Philippine team against Myanmar in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying tournament in March. Looking tired and dejected, the Azkals limped to the locker room at halftime faced with the possibility of losing the first leg to a less talented side.

But the Azkals came charging back in the second half visibly rejuvenated. Stephan Schrock, who was murder in the midfield all game long in a stellar debut for the Azkals, teamed up with resident Pinoy energizer Caligdong to give the Philippine team one opportunity after another. And while the Sri Lankans got several opportunities to score off the counter, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge took care of business, which included a sensational save on a shot by Anton Nimal Fernando.

Part of the struggles of the Philippine team could perhaps be attributed to the lack of familiarity among the players deployed by Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss. Strikers Phil Younghusband and Angel Guirado were playing together for the first time in the game, while Burkey and Filipino-Germans Schrock and Manny Ott, and Filipino-Dutch Paul Mulders were making their international debuts for the Philippines. Longtime starter Ian Araneta only came off the bench late in the match, while utility man Roel Gener was kept in the sidelines all game.

Despite the disappointing result – team manager Dan Palami said the Azkals would score at least two goals in Colombo – the Philippines is in great position going into the Manila leg of the qualifier on July 3 at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. Because of the away goals rule, the Azkals only need a nil-nil result to advance into the second round of the World Cup qualifiers against Kuwait.



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