July 28, 2011

Azkals lose to Kuwait, out of World Cup

The Philippines Azkals gave it their best shot, but in the end Al Azraq of Kuwait was simply the better team, brushing aside a red card on one of its midfielders and relying on its overall superiority to hack out a hard-fought 2-1 victory to wrap up their second-round 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying series.

The Kuwaitis broke the hearts of the 13,000 Azkal supporters who packed the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium hoping to see their heroes overhaul a 0-3 deficit. And while the Philippines played much better than they did in the first leg in Kuwait, it wasn't enough to overcome their opponents' vast experience and superior skills.

Both teams had scoring chances in the first half, and Kuwait, despite sitting on a three-goal cushion, came out looking to score. Al Azraq often tested goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, hitting the goal post three times in the first 45 minutes. The Philippines had the first shot on goal, though, in the ninth minute, when Rob Gier headed a free kick from Chieffy Caligdong straight to Kuwaiti keeper Nawaf Al Khaldi.

In the 24th, a long strike by Fahed Al Ebrahim almost found the mark, and it took some brilliant goalkeeping from Etheridge to deflect the ball and prevent Kuwait from lighting up the scoreboard first. Nine minutes later, Bader Al Mutwa beat Etheridge with a strike, but the ball hit the goal post instead. The Azkals stepped up their attack after that, with Manuel Ott and Caligdong keeping Al Khaldi busy with successive long strikes.

It was midfielder Stephan Schrock who finally broke through in the third minute of first-half injury time, fielding a short pass from Caligdong from the left wing and unleashing a brilliant strike to the far right of the goal. Al Khaldi had no chance of saving it, and suddenly the Philippines was up 1-nil at halftime.

Needing three more goals to win the tie outright, the Philippines pressed on early in the second half, and had an excellent chance to go up 2-nil in the 52nd minute when Etheridge's long ball found Phil Younghusband deep in the Kuwaiti defensive line. The Fil-British striker deftly outmaneuvered two defenders and had a clean shot on goal, but Al Khaldi was up to the task and deflected the strike. Later coach Michael Weiss would call the miss "the crucial point" of the match.

In the 60th, the Azkals gained a huge advantage when Al Ebrahim was sent off by referee Liu Kwok Man for a hard foul. However, despite being down a man, it was Kuwait that would score next. In a cruel twist of fate for the Azkals, midfielder Yousef Naser, who was just waiting for the next dead ball to be substituted, rifled in a shot from 30 yards out that beat Etheridge and found the back of the net. The stunning goal silenced the crowd and appeared to deflate the Azkals, who just couldn't capitalize on their one-man advantage the rest of the way.

The Philippines never seriously threatened after that, as Kuwait defended well and launched counter-attacks often to keep the Azkals' defensive line on their heels.

The Kuwaitis added one more goal in the 83rd, when Waleid Ali found himself unmarked in the penalty box and eluded a charging Etheridge to flick home the ball despite a last-second effort by Aly Borromeo to kick it out.

Kuwait thus won the two-leg tie 5-1 on aggregate, and will advance to the third-round group stage of the Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. While the Philippines made great strides this year by advancing to the second round of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time in history, this match also showed there's still a lot of ground to cover before the Azkals move up the Asian football pecking order. Kuwait's short passing was simply superb, and even their long balls were oftentimes spot on. Individually, players like Fahad El Hanazi constantly outplayed Filipino defenders with great footwork and ball control on solo runs.
"I think we were in control in the first half," said Kuwait's Serbian coach Goran Tufegdzic. "We had many chances to score."Tufegdzic added his two substitutions at midfield in the second half paid off and changed the complexion of the game.

"I think this game and the previous game showed how bitter and hard football can be," Weiss said after the match. "It's a tough sport." The German coach admitted there were just too many lapses on defense, and they allowed Kuwait too many shots. "Our defenders are only waiting and inviting other teams to score. It's something we have to rectify."

Philippine Azkal #16 Ray Jónsson tries to score a goal during the first half match of Philippines vs Kuwait in the second leg of the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers held at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex.

Overall, though, Weiss said his side played as hard as they could, and sees further improvement down the line with the proper support. "The Philippines is on a very good track, and we will be a contender in four years. But in those four years, we need the proper preparation, we need support, we need money, we need new pitches."

The Azkals will take a much-needed rest for several weeks, before beginning their preparation for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup in March. Weiss hopes to have a full complement of players for this tournament, where the top four teams advance to the Asian Cup in 2015. Before that, Weiss will coach the under-23 team in the Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia in November, hoping to give the country its first-ever football medal in the biennial meet.

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