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Azkals Lose!

Well how about that…??? A goal scored in the fourth minute of second half injury time meant that the Philippine National Football Team, a.k.a. the Azkals, had to bear the ignominy of losing a televised training match against the UFL All Stars, a ragtag team of former national players and journeymen foreigners. The score was 3-4.

Although the Azkals took the lead in the first half through Chiefy Caligdong and enjoyed territorial possession for majority of the match, in fact the team had to come from behind twice to draw 3-all as the match drew to a close.

A draw was, perhaps, how the match should have ended; albeit, credit to the All Stars for never saying never and poaching the winner in a classic smash-and-grab. God knows the Azkals had more than sufficient chances to have won the match comfortably.

Having sat through all 90 minutes of this enthralling encounter, the only conclusion that I can draw from it is... that we need a proper football field!

No kidding! The ball bounced this way and that and it was apparent from the kick-off that the field was something of a cabbage patch.

Make no mistake; from the vantage point of a television camera, it looked lush green. But then, so was FAITH’s football field when we played there last season in the NCAA-South. Go ask the boys and they will tell you that the field made any sort of passing next to impossible.

The commentator of today’s match, noticing the difficulty that the Azkals had in controlling the ball, apologetically explained that the pitch at the University of Makati (UM) hosts as many as three matches on a game day. That is fine.

What is not is that nobody seems to have figured out that football pitches have to be rolled when they are not being used, just for them to become reasonably level for passing the ball along the carpet.

I suppose the Rizal Memorial will be kinder to the Azkals when Sri Lanka comes avisiting for a World Cup qualifier on July 3. The commentator said as much; and indeed, I have seen pictures of the pitch on Facebook. It is in a lovely state. While it is still not Wembley, just seeing grass on it makes me feel happy already.

But back to this afternoon’s training match… Honestly, I would not read too much into the result. For starters, the Azkals were not at full strength. Angel Guirado, Jerry Lucena, Ray Jónsson and Rob Gier were the notable absentees.

I am not privy to the affairs of the team; so I really do not know if these gentlemen will fly over for either or both of the two legs of the World Cup qualifiers. I am confident enough to say, though, that I do not think the All Stars would have had such an enterprising afternoon if these lads were playing.

Losing can actually be advantageous to the Azkals because it tempers expectations going into the qualifiers. I thought the lads looked a tad uptight already this afternoon; and that crowd that was at the UM stadium could not have been more than a couple of thousand.

On the other hand, the Rizal Memorial is – and I never thought I would be able to say this in my lifetime – sold out for the Sri Lanka match. That crowd on the third of July will have to get behind the Azkals; not get anxious. Today’s result, I believe, gives those who will be attending a better sense of perspective of the task facing the team.

Sri Lanka is really cricket country and ranked many notches below us. The first round of qualifiers will not be a stroll in the park for the Azkals but I will still be very surprised indeed if we do not progress on through the next round.

Now this is when the big boys of Asia join in; and the whole nation really needs to understand that the Middle Eastern and East Asian teams are already rubbing elbows with the traditional footballing nations of Europe and Latin America.

People need to understand that the current Azkals team is the starting point and not the finished product; and not get off from the bandwagon if the team suffers a heavy loss if we are so unfortunate to draw one of the really strong nations of Asia in the succeeding rounds of the qualifiers.

I have said in a previous post that we need one creative midfielder and good wingers to really look like a proper football team. We depended too much on the long ball this afternoon; and while that could have been because of the state of the pitch, I thought that the UFL All Stars did better what the Azkals struggled to do all afternoon. That is, play the ball when they had it down along the carpet.

A creative midfielder in the mould of Barcelona’s Iniesta – the sort who brings his team-mates into the play and makes things happen – can really transform this team. The backbone is already there.

While Caligdong can deliver quality crosses – some were exquisite during the Mongolia game at the Panaad – and is already something of a cult figure among Azkals fans, I think he is way too small for the international game and does not appear to have the ability to take on larger opponents one-on-one.

Aly Borromeo, who I respect and admire, was just not himself today and even missed a header to let in a soft goal. He needs Gier beside him; and although the latter lacks pace, he is a steadying presence in front of goal.

I wonder if Borromeo was unnerved by having Jason Sabio in the backline? Sabio cannot be faulted for intensity and effort; but every time I watch him play I get the feeling that he is a calamity waiting to happen. I understand from some web sites that Sabio is supposed to be an excellent student and is now enrolled in law school.

There was nothing intelligent about the foul he gave away just outside the penalty box from which Mark Hartmann scored for the All Stars.  Even my high school boys knew better than to give away a silly foul in front of goal. By the way, I thought Mark Hartmann – a Fil-Brit – was on the wrong team.

A word about Philly… All great strikers become what they are because of their hunger for goals. That said, part of that greatness is also in being able to recognize when there is a team-mate better placed to score.

From the first time I saw Philly play for the Azkals, I immediately recognized that the lad was special. However, I also did notice a tendency to have a go even when passes to better-placed team-mates would have been the better choices. The lad was still trying way too hard this afternoon; and I just think somebody really ought to sit him down.

I have said it before and will say so again: Michael Weiss’ gung-ho approach unnerves me. At times, the gap between the midfield line and the central defenders was wider than Hacienda Luisita. It is the very gap top coaches think of plugging even before they think of going forward.

Maybe it is just me; but I was more comfortable with Simon McMenemy’s pragmatic approach. What is the point of sexy football if we end up losing to hastily assembled teams?  We are a country that needs to win first; if just to strengthen the gains from the Suzuki Cup.  Sexy can come later!

Just something for Weiss to ponder before the Sri Lankans come avisiting.

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