Home and Away: Azkals vs Indonesia

It was supposed to be a friendly but one couldn't be faulted for thinking there was a lot more at stake. A bench clearing fracas and 3 red cards surely added to the passion and tension on the field of play. Well, considering that pride was at stake and both sides had points to prove, that alone ups the ante considerably. A rivalry in the making perhaps? I wouldn't mind at all, because to be embroiled in a football rivalry is a sign that our national team is being taken seriously by its opponent.

In the end, the Philippine - Indonesia match ended in a 2-2 draw. For us, this was supposed to be the payback for the home game we never had against the Indonesians at the semifinals of the 2010 Suzuki Cup, though it wasn't the Indonesia's fault our team had to face a hostile environment twice. You can thank the previous regime at the PFF for that debacle. Indonesia beat us on both legs 1-0 and the "what if we had one leg of that semi played at home" has been foremost on most minds of Filipino football supporters. The Tuesday night clash against Indonesia at home was expected to provide an answer, some form of closure to that lingering question out of the recent past. Never mind that our national team, the Azkals, have come a long way from then, achieved historical milestones for Philippine football and improved considerably over a short period of time. Never mind if the current teams are so different from the ones that clashed 2 years ago. No, this was a time of reckoning for the Philippines, payback of some sort.

Indonesia on the other hand had more current concerns and a much different point to prove coming into this clash. That Suzuki Cup semis 2 years ago for them was likely a thing of the past. They have bigger problems" at the moment. They run the risk of missing out on the 2012 Suzuki Cup this year due to off-field problems that could find their Federation suspended from international competitions. Problems brought about by a rift in their domestic league has spilled over and affected their national team. As a result, they have a very young squad and one very much different that lost to Malaysia at the Suzuki Cup finals 2 years ago. You wouldn't be too far off if you described the Indonesian football situation as one in turmoil. For the Indonesians, this match was about making a statement that they are still in contention that they are still among Southeast Asia's (pardon the pun) top dogs despite their off-field problems.

Photo via interaksyon.com

So the stage was set, 2 teams out to make a statement. A strong and vastly improved Philippine team with almost all key players available, facing a slightly young and inexperienced Indonesian side. The script for this dramatic clash was calling for a victory for the Philippine side; all the elements were in place for such a result. Well, that's football for you and the beauty of this game, it doesn't follow scripts. This game loves to throw monkey wrenches into well laid out plans and scenarios, and whether we know it or not, is most probably the reason why we all love this game so much.

As it turned out, our Azkals had to fight back and display that dogged (this time pun intended) determination once again to equalize twice to come out with a draw for this match. What was hoped to be a moment of glory turned out to be a sigh of relief. We could have won this match, we should have but we didn't. A Philippine victory over Indonesia in football will have to wait until the next opportunity we face them.

Disappointing, perhaps yes because our team were clearly dominant this time, had better percentage of ball possession and more numerous and better chances at goal. Wait, the Philippines dominated and controlled most of the match had more shots at goal and greater ball possession against Indonesia? Well, that's new. Not only that, our Coach fiddled around with the line-up and had 4 starters on the bench for the first half and put in 2 young kids (Ott and Angeles) in charge of holding central midfield.

People would say that it was weak Indonesia team, yet they led twice and we needed to grab a draw to salvage some pride. Well, that's exactly the point because I saw the match as a reversal of roles. For a change, we see the Azkals playing as the more dominant team against Indonesia who, strangely enough, were playing the way the Azkals do when faced with superior opponents. Indonesia were playing in a way you would expect an away team to play, cautious, defensive and waiting for an opportunity to take their chances on a counter-attack especially if the home team is effectively controlling the match. Sounds and looks familiar? Well yes, because the Azkals minus 3 key players were playing the same way away to a full strength Malaysia side in Kuala Lumpur just a few days before the match with Indonesia. I just love the irony in that, es futbol. The only difference in the 2-2 draw with Indonesia is that they made their few chances at goal count, 2 out of 4 to our 2 out of 10 shots at goal. In the Malaysia match, both sides failed to make any of their attempts to score count.

Some people will feel that it is the score line that matters. True to some extent, but this was a friendly. Heck, even in competitions, not even the better team wins. Ask Barcelona FC about their UEFA Champions League semifinal clash with eventual champions Chelsea and I'm sure they will agree with that point. I think the bigger picture we need to see from this match against Indonesia was that we were the better team in this match. Of course, there's still a lot of room for improvement and lots of work to do, but at the least this match also showed everyone what the Azkals are capable of on the pitch and how much they have progressed in just 2 years time. Need proof, just look at how the Indonesians played against our team. The Indonesians played like the underdog in this match, they did so because they knew coming into this match that the Azkals were the better team even if they wouldn't directly say so in public. Their actions on the pitch reveal more than their words and clearly manifest that point. Now tell me if that isn't a sign of respect from a country who over the decades has consistently beaten our football teams 18 times out of 20 occasions including this most recent match. The other 2 matches were draws.

Well, we came close this time around. We were literally inches away (e.g. Angel's header that hit the crossbar) from a victory over Indonesia. In my opinion, that ain't too bad at all. There will be other occasions in the future, both at home or even away, and you can be sure that Indonesia won't be taking our team lightly anymore. 

2012 Moira G Gallaga©


Honors Even Between the Azkals and Tigers

It was a well earned nil-nil draw that the Philippine Azkals got out of their friendly match against the Malaysian Tigers. It was a considerably commendable feat, especially when we take into account the fact that in four previous matches the Philippines played on Malaysian turf it all ended in defeat for our side. The Philippines is definitely no longer the whipping boys of Southeast Asia and the Azkals continue to show marked progress and promise.

The obligation to win this match loomed larger for the hosts. In the last friendly held here in Manila, they brought in a squad that left out some of their top players and they were lucky to equalize and draw the match in the dying minutes after trailing the Philippines Azkals 1-nil for some time. They also complained about the condition of the pitch. Well then, the stage was set for this return edition for the Malaysians to set the record straight.

They were playing on home ground where they hold a formidable record, and had their full complement of starters from their AFF championship squad available. Might I also add that the match officials were also Malaysian. That wouldn’t have been a problem if there weren’t some calls that were…I’d rather not say, though I credit Neil Etheridge and Darren Hartmann for their attempt to be as diplomatic as possible during their TV commentary when they made comment on some of the calls of the referee. The subtlety of the sarcasm was typically English. It might be worthwhile to note too that Dan Palami had a very subtle tweet about the match officials and Coach Weiss was quoted in an article making a comment on the use of officials from the hosting nation for international friendlies.

Photo via interaksyon.com

Anyway, problems with referees and officiating are always part and parcel of football, what matters in the end is sticking that ball into the goal more times than your opponent does. Last night you would think that players from both sides were doing their darned best to miss the goal, the Malaysians especially who had several pretty good chances. But as Chelsea has shown to everyone in the footballing world in their semifinals against Barcelona in the recently concluded UEFA Champions League, you don’t need that many chances at goal if you put away the few chances that you get and your opponent fails to do so.

So while the Malaysian coach and many others may feel that they deserved to win that match given the chances they created, I still say the honors were even that evening because they failed to convert those opportunities. We may have had much fewer chances at goal but if only one of those went in, the resulting victory would have been well deserved. Go ask Chelsea FC, the current UEFA Champions League champions, I’m sure they’ll agree with my point. But as it turns out, no goals were made that evening and as I said, the honors were even.

We had a pretty good squad for that match but were missing several key players – the Younghusbands, Neil Etheridge, Ray Jonsson, Jerry Lucena and Dennis Cagara. One could go on with the “what ifs” had these other players been available, but there is no point to keep dwelling on that matter. This is a challenge our national team faces every time they are going to play, and it is something we just have to learn how to deal with and overcome. Based on last night’s result, it appears that the Azkals coped with that challenge fairly well.

The Malaysians had a nervous start but settled down as the match progressed. Cohesion and teamwork issues continue to hound the Azkals and it manifested itself in this match. No question about individual skill and talent, we got loads of it on the pitch. It’s the matter of putting it together into a system that needs further work. As long as the PFF keeps maximizing the opportunities to arrange matches for the Azkals this objective will eventually be achieved.

Our goalkeeper Roland Muller was definitely man of the match for the Philippines. Stephan Schroeck is on another level entirely, an exciting player to watch. Though still needs to gel and get in sync some more with the rest (or the others need to start getting in sync with him) of the team. One other Azkal that impressed me a lot in this match was Marwin (or was it Marvin) Angeles. His entry into the match brought a positive impact into the game of the Azkals. He even had a crack at goal, narrowly missing it. This is one for the future given his age, shows lots of promise.

Well, that’s one down and there will be plenty of lessons to be learned from this draw against Malaysia and some adjustments to be made for the upcoming matches. There are two more matches up ahead, against Indonesia at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium in Manila on 05 June and against Guam at Panaad stadium in Bacolod City on 12 June. There’s also news of a training camp in August in Chicago, U.S.A.

These are all good developments. The Philippine national football team needs to play as much as it can. I am glad that the PFF and the management of the national team are taking advantage of every opportunity to play as frequently as possible, whether it be friendly matches, training matches or competitions. This draw against Malaysia on their home ground is a validation of that effort. So keep it up Azkals, keep making us proud. We Believe!

2012 June, Moira G Gallaga©