Philippine Azkals at the Long Teng Cup

This is a bit late but with several matches in succession it takes a while before I could get settled down to write about the Philippine Azkals. 

Anyway, congratulations to the Azkals for placing second at the recently concluded Long Teng Cup in Taiwan. It was an improvement from last year's standing and once again the Philippines capture the Golden Boot award c/o Chieffy Caligdong (last year it was Ian Araneta). 

What was significant about this year's tournament was that our Azkals almost could have gotten the top prize itself. However, such are the breaks of the game that wasn't meant to be this time around. Still, it was quite an achievement considering we sent a hybrid team of seasoned regulars mixed in with some promising U23 players who will be competing in the SEA Games in Indonesia in November.

The first match was against Hong Kong, the defending champions of the tournament. It was expected to be a tough match and it definitely was. It was a nervy start for the Azkals  who found themselves 2 goals down in the first 22 minutes. You could see Disaster lurking by our side of the pitch, but in typical Azkal fashion, our boys fought their way back to a draw by halftime courtesy of a penalty by Phil Younghusband and an excellent goal by Chieffy Caligdong just before the halftime whistle. Another piece of magic by Chieffy in the second half and the Philippines was ahead 2-3. Three points seemed destined in the bag and a good position in the tournament standings. However, Hong Kong equalizes and grabs a vital point 5 minutes from time from a set piece. Azkals dropped 2 points in a pretty exciting match.

The hosts were up next. Buoyed by their 3-0 win against Macau they started out aggressively hoping to further consolidate their lead in the standings. The Azkals needed to win and get the three points here if we wanted to take a commanding seat in this tournament. In the interest of being diplomatic, I'll just say the hosts put all the stops to frustrate the Azkals and disrupt their playing rhythm. I would say it worked as they held the Azkals to a draw that kept them tied at top spot with Hong Kong in the standings. Azkals found themselves in 3rd place, needing a 0-5 win minimum and hope that Taiwan and Hong Kong draw for any hope to win the tournament.

Macau is considered the weakest of the bunch and the Azkals beat them 0-5 last time. However, if the Azkals have improved a lot since then, it appeared that Macau has done the same. The Azkals dominated the match but somehow could not just get that ball in the net. The first half ends in 0-0. The second half begins the same way as the first, with the Azkals controlling the game. However, it took the introduction of Chieffy Caligdong to turn the game around. Rested by Coach Micheal Weiss due to injury sustained in the Taiwan match, Coach Weiss needed to turn to the veteran to make things happen. The result, 2 goals by Chieffy and unfortunate miss in front of an open goal to cap an excellent individual performance with a match winning hat trick. Chieffy had to settle for the 2 goals, the Golden Boot and the for the Azkals, second place with that 0-2 win against Macau.

All in all, it wasn't a bad tournament for the Azkals. They did pretty well considering almost half the team were U23 players and a number of them making their international debuts. It was definitely Chieffy's tournament, showing one and all how he continues to play a vital role for the team and how much his game has improved in the last few months under Coach Weiss. Among the U23 players, a number of local based youth players stood out and proven themselves quite able and ready for these type of exposures. The Azkals goalie in this tournament Roland Mueller was a revelation and like Chieffy, shone in this tournament. his excellent saves kept us in contention during the tournament. If the senior team has Neil Etheridge, the U23 has Roland Mueller. Another standout was Belgium based youth player Jeffrey Christaens. He was being christened by some as the next Chieffy given their somewhat similar style of play, high praise indeed for Christaens to be compared to the Azkals' player of the tournament.

Well, another round of international matches under their belt and the Azkals marches on carrying the banner of Philippine football proudly. Go Azkals, we believe!    
2011 Moira G Gallaga©

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