Football is a curious sport, and it showed once again why it is so as the Philippine national team, known as the Azkals, beat Tajikistan after being a goal down en route to qualifying in the AFC Asian Cup in the hallowed Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Heading into the match the Philippines were in a make-or-break situation, needing at least a draw to be able to get to the big stage – The 2019 Asian Cup tournament proper.
The Azkals initially started their campaign well with wins against Nepal and Tajikistan but a trio of draws complicated things a bit for Coach Thomas Dooley’s squad with Tajikistan and Yemen lurking behind in the Group F standings.
The last hurdle in the campaign is Tajikistan which seemed to have revived their push to the Asian Cup with two wins and a draw and with its capability it was really poised to be a tough match.
It was a tough match indeed!
The game started with the visitors churning out good runs towards the home team’s half while the Azkals threatened on a few occasions off the counter-attack.
In the 11th minute Carli De Murga almost got the breakthrough off a corner but his header was just wide.
In the 18th minute Iain Ramsay tested the Tajikistan keeper, Mahkamov Abduaziz with the shot parried away.
Two corners followed for the Philippines but the Tajiks were able to weather the two instances unscathed.
The rest of the first half turned out to be a grind as both sides had chance but no one wants to give as it ended goalless.
In the second half, that was when the match became cardiac in nature.
Tajikistan were given a breakthrough courtesy of a penalty kick awarded when Davronov was felled by Kevin Ingreso’s leg.
Nazarov, who took the kick, converted as Neil Etheridge dived the other way. Time check, 64th minute.
At this point it seemed The Azkals’ chances of making the continental championship were in jeopardy. Although a draw was what’s only needed, the goal could be hard to come by given the quality opponent.
But Thomas Dooley’s men upped the sense of urgency as they continued to create opportunities for an equalizer.
Ten minutes later, came the perfect response after a great combination between Iain Ramsay, James and Phil Younghusband found Iain Ramsay again off Phil’s clever on-touch. Iain then produced a looping cross which found an unmarked Kevin Ingreso to nod home from a considerable distance and redeem himself from the previous error.
What followed next is a roar that has never been heard for a while in Rizal Stadium as the Philippines are on track again to making it to UAE in 2019.
The game then opened up a bit with Tajikistan getting near misses, same as The Azkals.
But in 90th minute, the tide went to the Philippines to ensure its passage to the AFC Asian Cup as Patrick Reichelt received an infraction from Nazarov in the box.
Phil Younghusband coolly brought the ball into the back of the net to get his 50th goal for the Philippines sending the crowd inside the stadium to wild with celebrations and the team to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup UAE.
— FOX Sports PH (@FOXSports_PH) March 27, 2018
The Fan Support
It was electric.
That match delivered an atmosphere that was definitely something that wasn’t experienced recently in the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
The decision of the AFC not to open the bleachers to spectators somehow led to a tightly packed grandstand that was loud with Filipino football fans.
Even with the home team down by a goal, the fans did not waver in chanting, cheering and encouraging the squad and it might, in one way or another, might have helped to do the trick to fight back to get the win.
— Iain Ramsay (@IainRamsay_17) March 27, 2018
The players even tipped their hats to the supporters who came into the venue in full force.
“Just looking up, when we were 1-0 down and you hear them cheering us on… that made the difference for us coming back.” @TheAzkalsPH @PhilYHusband on the support the fans gave in their @afcasiancup qualifier win over Tajikistan.#Azkals #OneBlood #AsianCup2019 pic.twitter.com/c5E9DsM9pL
— FOX Sports PH (@FOXSports_PH) March 28, 2018
The Team Milestone
Once again, the Philippine Football National Team achieved something massive by reaching the Asian Cup tournament proper for the first time in its history.
The Azkals are, again, going to make waves in the local sporting circles that could benefit the growth of football as a sport in the country.
But the most important thing is the worldwide football community is noticing our country’s entrance to the continental event as the team are set to embark into uncharted territory in international football.
— Cardiff City FC (@CardiffCityFC) March 27, 2018
Phil Younghusband achieved his 50th goal for country in definitely one of the grandest way possible, by getting the win to ensure your team’s passage to qualify to a big tournament.
Being a part of the national team since 2005, the Davao Aguilas striker and former Chelsea Youth talent really was one of the players who paved the way for the Philippine Football Team’s “golden generation”.
Kevin Ingreso, almost had a nightmare of a game, but he made up for it more than enough.
By causing a penalty to the opponent due to Kevin’s leg clipping an attacking Tajik player inside the box an air of uncertainty and tension did shroud the atmosphere a bit.
But how he responded in adversity was the most notable by scoring a header to get the equalizer and which restored the automatic qualification status of the team.
The Ceres Negros midfielder has been consistent in his improvement with the national team tha past games, but this moment against Tajikistan was his, as proven by getting the nod from the AFC Match Commissioner to award to him the man of the match.
The Fine Line
After Tajikistan’s goal that broke the ice, we were a few minutes away from a devastating loss and soul-searching.
What if we lost? Philippine Football probably will be hit hard once again as continues its process of cracking the international stage and really earning a degree of massive recognition locally.
For sure there would be ramifications. But the good thing was, our team won the most crucial match of their lives wearing The Azkals shirt.
Now we are enjoying but we were just a few minutes away from the possibility of losing – That’s how much of a tight-rope that game was.
And with Kevin Ingreso’s equalizer and the icing on the cake by Phil Younghusband, that winning result was what the team and the fans need. A job well done.
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) March 27, 2018
But it doesn’t end there. As a matter of fact, it just opened a Pandora’s box of new and greater challenges. But that is a situation that the team and the federation would be very much happy to take.
Thomas Dooley admitted in the post-match press conference that his contract with the national team is up and he hopes for it to be renewed or extended.
Whatever the future holds, whether it’s going to be Coach Dooley or another mentor who will guide the team to the Asian Cup, he will have a massive responsibility on his shoulders, which is to lead The Azkals to a respectable showing come 2019.
Aside from that, with the Suzuki Cup already looming, it’s time for the team to set a much higher goal.
Twice the Filipinos made the semifinals (in 2012 and 2014), but they failed to bundle through it and reach the final. Maybe it’s time to target not just the finals but the trophy this time around.
The Asian Cup qualification is definitely a step up. Whether that step is too much or not, we have yet to see. I hope, and I believe, we can compete toe-to-toe and even get a result. But surprises (in a good way) are more than welcome rather then the expected. Let’s see.
But before everything else on what the future holds (which seems to be much brighter now), it’s time to just cherish the achievement of our Philippine National Football Team.
It was a hell of a campaign, a memorable night, and now they reap the rewards because they didn’t give up.
They definitely walked that fine line, and they triumphed to face a new, bigger, and more arduous journey but definitely with renewed hope.
WE’RE IN THE ASIAN CUP!!!
Images of Azkals on pitch courtesy of: The Philippine Football Federation