A loss that felt like a win

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Friday, March 7, 2014

IT WAS a loss where fans felt like their team won.

Never mind the 1-0 score. Let’s look at what transpired during the friendly match between Azerbaijan and the Philippines in Dubai.

What the fans saw was a team that outdid itself. Consider the supposed gulf in class: ranked 93rd in the world, Azerbaijan is 34 notches above the Azkals. This is the same team from Europe that drew Russia and beat Northern Ireland in the 2014 World Cup qualification last year. Not surprising when someone like Berti Vogts, who coached Germany to the European Championship title in 1996, is managing the Azeri.


Everyone expected a rout. The defense would leak goals. The Azkals, though, had different plans and put up a fight that probably made Azerbaijan doubt itself as a team.

The lone goal the Azkals conceded came off a corner set play. There’s no excuse for the loss, but that single chance that the Azeris took and converted shouldn’t overshadow the entire performance of the Philippine team. And in my book, it was impressive.

WELCOME CHANGE. In just his second game as Azkals head coach, Thomas Dooley has made clear what system he wants for the team: one that means business, with players that chase the ball as if their lives depended on it. Every pass, every dribble had to count. Possession was key.

The result? An Azkals team that managed to control the game and dictate the tempo during several spells. It felt like watching a different team.

The Azkals of old largely depended on long balls, if not cleared the ball at the slightest pressure, but the team that played that night in Dubai played with purpose. It’s the same with the one that played in Malaysia last Sunday.

Whatever Dooley has been doing, the players seem to have adapted to his coaching style easily. This is change that’s more than welcome.

COUNTING CHANCES. I haven’t seen the Azkals distribute the ball so well the way they did last Wednesday night. They managed to squeeze out of the tightest of situations, even when the Azeris got too physical. In effect, the Azkals consistently executed plays that threatened the opposing half spell after spell, chance after goal-scoring chance.

The figures don’t lie. According to match statistics, the Azkals made seven attempts on goal, two more than the Azeris’. Our boys also hit the target three times, against the Azeris’ two, both of which hardly tested goalkeeper Patrick Deyto. Just four days earlier in Malaysia, Deyto had to pull off save after spectacular save to eke out a scoreless draw.

Though Azerbaijan survived with a 1-0 score line last Wednesday, the Philippine team emerged the bigger winner for outhustling its higher ranked opponent.

BUT CAN THEY SCORE? Before we begin celebrating this vast improvement in the way the Azkals play, flags have been raised concerning the team’s ability to score.

In the game against Malaysia, build ups went to waste with the failure of the attackers to pull the trigger. Against Azerbaijan, it got better.

With Stephan Schrock and Jerry Lucena reinforcing Martin Steuble and Misagh Bahadoran in midfield, and the returning Javier Patiño partnering with star striker Philip Younghusband up front, numerous scoring opportunities were created.

Converting these into goals is another matter, though, and the Azkals didn’t do well in this area. Several chances were wasted. Phil’s poor first touch, as well as lack of pace in keeping up with Shrock’s surgical threaded passes, didn’t escape scrutiny.

Dooley must be concerned that his team, for all its near-excellence in midfield and defense, has not scored a goal in two games.

The Azkals have one more friendly before the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup kicks off on May 20. Let’s hope that will give Dooley and his wards ample time to figure out how to score goals.


Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 07, 2014.


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