For the Philippine national men’s football team, the journey for glory to the 2014 FIFA World Cup ended three years early. Kuwait came from a goal down to defeat the valiant Azkals at the rain-soaked Rizal Memorial Football Stadium, winning the tie with a 5-1 aggregate score.
Stephan Schrock’s rocket gave the Azkals a shock 1-0 at halftime, but Kuwait’s proved their superiority after the break as they progress to the third round of qualifiers.
Here are five things we learned from the tie:
1. Over the two legs, Kuwait were the better team, and fully deserved to go through to the third round.
Over the two games, the Azkals tried a myriad of strategies against the Gulf powerhouse. In the first leg in Kuwait City, the Azkals parked the bus; in the second leg, the Azkals needed to score, hence they played a more attacking and open game. In both instances, they were methodically torn apart by the superior team.
Both Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss and Kuwait coach Goran Tufegdzic pointed to Al-Asraq’s deeper experience as the key factor in the victory. Comfortable on the ball and hardly panicking even when a goal down, Kuwait systematically shredded the Azkals midfield with one-touch passing and clever runs.
With swarming defense combined with lightning quick counter-attacks, Kuwait showed no let-up in 180 minutes of football to leave the Azkals chasing shadows for most of the tie.
Such is the level of football of the Kuwaiti team that even with star midfielder Fahad Al Ebrahim’s sent off, Kuwait not only maintained control of the game but also scored two unanswered goals to put the tie beyond doubt.
With Al Ebrahim, Kuwait’s man of the match in the first leg, out of the game after getting two yellow cards, the Azkals had numerical advantage on the pitch, which should have translated to more possession for the Azkals. Instead, Al-Azraq picked up where they left off and continued to push forward in search of goals.
There can be no complaints from the Azkals; we lost to the better team.
2. Even in defeat, there are many positives for the Azkals to take from the game and the series.
Tufegdzic reportedly said that this current Kuwaiti team presented Al-Azraq with their best chance in years to qualify for the World Cup.
When the draw for the second round of the World Cup qualifiers was made, Kuwait could be forgiven if they thought they hit the jackpot. Sri Lanka or the Philippines awaited them, surely no match for Al-Azraq’s class.
Fast forward to the 52nd minute of the second leg and with the Azkals leading 1-0 on the night. A streaking Phil Younghusband is seen bearing down on the Kuwaiti goal with three Kuwaiti defenders giving chase. The hearts of Kuwaiti fans were surely in their collective throats with the prospect of going 0-2 down on the night. The Azkals were not exactly the pushovers Al-Azraq were expecting when they learned of the draw.
Coach Weiss has been effusive in his praise for goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, and rightly so. Only 21 years of age, Etheridge arguably kept the Azkals in the game for the best part of two legs. Yet to hit his prime, Etheridge will be a force between the sticks for the Philippines for years to come.
For the opening 45 minutes of each leg, the Azkals proved that they can mix it up with the big boys of Asian football. Interestingly, the aggregate score of the first halves would have been a draw of 1-1, not at all a shabby result for the Azkals against a team ranked more than 50 places above them.
There were numerous excellent individual performances for the Azkals. Ray Jonsson was impenetrable at left-back. Rob Gier had excellent games anchoring the defense. Angel Guirado, although seemingly not his usual self in the latter part of the second leg, was a constant threat with his height and guile. Chieffy Caligdong’s work rate is outstanding and his pace is a tremendous asset for the team.
Where the Azkals were found wanting is in the delivery of the final ball, that one final touch that would give their attack just that menace — that world class pass that could turn a half-chance into a real chance on goal. Too often, we see excellent build-up play from the team, only to be let down by that final pass.
With more high intensity games like these against Kuwait, it would not be long before they can stay toe-to-toe with the best of Asia for the whole 90 minutes of play.