Football

Five things we learned after the Azkals loss to the UFL All-Stars

“You learn more by losing than winning,” the old axiom goes. So when the Philippine national men’s football team lost, 3-4, in an exhibition match to a selection from the United Football League, it showed that the Azkals could still learn some new tricks. We list down the five things we can take away from the loss:

1.    The United Football League has quality among its ranks.

The casual Filipino football fan would be forgiven for expecting the Azkals to have a walk in the park against the UFL All-Stars last Sunday. Instead, the Azkals were faced with a strong and motivated opposition, albeit one without the benefit of a single training session.

Belying his small physical stature, former Azkal Anto Gonzales was a warrior in midfield. Fil-Brit Mark Hartmann, who was never asked to try out for the Azkals, was the man of the match and scored a beauty of a free kick. The victory validates the league’s quality, and the Azkals coaching staff would be wise to take a closer look at players from the UFL in its next recruitment phase.

2.    Neil Etheridge may be a Barclays Premier League third choice goalkeeper, but he is not impenetrable.

UFL All Stars coach Rudy del Rosario motivated his strikers before the game with this question: “Wouldn’t it feel great to score against Neil?”

The UFL strike force of Izo El-Habbib, Mark Hartmann and Eric Dagroh duly delivered by putting four goals past the Fulham keeper. The Azkals cannot rely solely on Neil to keep clean sheets; thus the back four has to do its share of proper defending. It can be argued that Neil was not at fault for all four UFL goals.

3.    The Jason Sabio and Aly Borromeo defensive partnership needs to be looked into. Again.

All four UFL goals were the result of sloppy defending by Sabio and Borromeo, the two central defenders.

In the 40th minute, Borromeo miscontrolled a routine Greatwich back pass, allowing the UFL squad to win the ball cheaply. UFL winger Floriano Pasilan, Jr. then completely wrong-footed Sabio and passed the ball to striker Eric Dagroh, who turned the Azkals captain with ease for the opening goal.

In the build-up to the second goal, Sabio should’ve been given a yellow card for manhandling Mark Hartmann just outside the box. The Loyola Meralco Sparks striker got the last laugh though with a sublime curling free kick to the top right corner, beyond the reach of any keeper.

The third UFL goal came out of nowhere. From a routine UFL throw in, Sabio managed to mis-hit a header back to his own goal into the waiting feet of Eric Dagroh who made no mistake with his right-footed shot. These are very costly errors and they will be punished by players of this level.

4.    James Younghusband is not a holding midfielder.

When the Azkals go forward foraging for a goal, it is the job of the defensive midfielder — Younghusband in last Sunday’s game — to track back and anticipate opposing counterattacks. In the case of the UFL’s fourth goal, Borromeo was stranded in midfield, leaving Sabio as the lone central defender. Once the Azkals lost possession, Izo was able to exploit the space left by Borromeo to fire an unstoppable shot for the lead.

Younghusband is naturally an attack-minded player and his natural movement is going for goal. His delivery of the ball is impeccable, especially coming from set pieces. He should be slotted back to right midfield or played higher up the pitch. Putting him as a midfield shield does not play to his strengths.

5. The Azkals are still dependent on the old reliables.

In the face of massive recruitment for young blood, it is still the old guard who carried the Azkals in Sunday’s game.

Chieffy Caligdong was a threat all game long and was a constant menace with the ball at his feet. His cool finish in the 11th minute opened the floodgates, and he capped off a good game with a superb cross to Ian Araneta for the Azkals’ third goal.

James Younghusband’s exquisite passes and crosses created chance after chance for the Azkals. His header was spilled by the UFL goalkeeper, allowing Simon Greatwich to score the second Azkal goal.

Ian Araneta proved that there is more to come from him after coming off the bench and almost rescuing the Azkals from defeat. With the expected inclusion of Angel Guirado in the starting lineup, his contribution off the bench may prove crucial for the Azkals’ quest for World Cup glory.

Utilityman Roel Gener was the only member of the back four who acquitted himself in the game. He would probably give way for Ray Jonsson in the starting lineup, but being able to play on the left or on the right, he will be an important squad player for the team.

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