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Whatever People Say, Kuwait is Beatable!

A lot is being said lately, now that we have confirmed our passage into the second round of the Asian World Cup qualifiers, about how substantially more challenging the next round opponent will be. That will be Kuwait, of course; as dictated by the draw made in Kuala Lumpur over the summer.

All the caution is but, perhaps, appropriate. Azkal-mania, after all, is not even a year old. Knowing as we all do that we are the nation of the ningas-kugon, the true fans of football in this country do not wish the others who jumped onto the bandwagon to get off just yet.

A lot is being said about Kuwait having gone to the World Cup. The Kuwaitis have done so, to be perfectly honest – in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. That would be only eight years before Neil Etheridge was born. And they have not been there since…

A lot is also being said about Kuwait having beaten and drawn with Australia in the recent qualifiers for the Asian Cup 2011 in Qatar. Indeed, in 2009, the Kuwaitis sprung the surprise of their qualifying group by nipping the Aussies in Canberra, no less. The score was 0-1 in favour of the Middle Easterners.

The two teams drew 2-2 in the return tie in Kuwait in 2010. What is not being mentioned is that the Aussies still topped the qualifying group despite its two results against Kuwait. What is also not being said is that Kuwait could only beat Indonesia 2-1 in Kuwait; and in fact could only manage a 1-all draw against the Southeast Asians at the Bung Karno in the return tie.

We have played neither against the Aussies nor Oman – the fourth team in that Asian Cup qualifying group – so I would imagine it will have to be our recent performances against our Southeast Asian neighbours that will have to serve as everyone’s crystal ball to look into the two-legged tie against Kuwait.

For those who have already forgotten, we were forced to play both legs of last December’s AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final round in Jakarta; ostensibly because of the lack of an appropriate-sized stadium by tournament rules. We narrowly lost both legs 0-1; and while these results did not go our way, we all saw the valiant efforts of our brave warriors in front of 80,000 screaming adversaries that we patted the boys on the back, nonetheless, and looked ahead to the AFC Challenge Cup.

Watching both legs on television, though, I wondered if dear Simon McMenemy might have blundered a bit with his tactics. I honestly felt we could have nicked the semis and gone on to play against Malaysia in the two-legged final.

Both the Philippines and Indonesia won passage to the semi-final by keeping things tight at the back in the group stages and hitting the opponents with rapier-like counter-attacks. That was how we helped to send Singapore packing and put Vietnam to the sword in the next game.

I know there was criticism for the parked-bus approach against Vietnam; and it was also possible that McMenemy was hoping to spring a surprise because Indonesia would have naturally expected us to sit back deep in defence. Still, the onus always was on the higher-ranked team – playing at home in both legs, if I might add – to take the initiative.

Therefore, we could have played to our strengths – as McMenemy himself was quoted to have said – without compromising national pride. We had everything to gain; and Indonesia had everything to lose!

That was why I was actually mortified to see that we were playing more expansively in that semi-final first leg than we did in all three group matches in Hanoi. Why abandon a winning formula? I have said it before: sexy football is great to watch; but a trophy in the display room is better to look at. Were it up to me, I would have told the critics of our defensive style to kiss my ass!

In the last decade, we all saw three mesmerizing encounters between Liverpool FC and Chelsea at the semi-final stage of the Champions League. When I say mesmerizing, I meant from the tactical point of view. All three ties must have been nightmare bores for the neutrals. A coach like me would have enjoyed watching; but the average fan not necessarily so.

It was like chess: very, very deliberate and each team waiting for the other to commit a mistake. Expansive, all these games definitely were not. The key was to stay compact and block all passing lanes for the opponent, spring forward when they made mistakes then retreat into a compact formation as soon as a counter-attack broke down.

In short, the same sort of game we were playing in the group matches in Hanoi; and the sort of game which I felt we should have continued playing against the Indonesians. Playing with attacking flair is lovely to watch, as we all saw at the Rizal Memorial against the Sri Lankans. However, it also taxes the midfield and when the midfielders get tired, the spaces open up for the opponents to weave their patterns.

Let us also not forget that a few of the lads, in fact, plane in from temperate and even sub-arctic climates. Was it just not propitious that the rain fell when it did at the Rizal Memorial? And what odds would there have been for the Azkals playing better because of it, as opposed to the hot and humid conditions in Colombo?

Getting back, remember the two Indonesian goals? The first, granted, was an Etheridge howler; but a tight midfield would have prevented the cross that led to the howler, in the first place. Then, the second was when the naturalized Gonzales was given a second bite at the cherry. Etheridge had no chance with the shot; but I wondered, had we not been so gung-ho earlier if, perhaps, somebody could have closed Gonzales down before he took that shot.

Water under the bridge, I know. All I am trying to say is that we could actually have at least drawn both matches against Indonesia. Which means – going back to the latter’s two Asian Cup encounters against Kuwait – that our own coming encounters against the Middle Eastern team should not be so daunting a prospect as it is being said to be.

I had seen highlights of Kuwait’s 2-1 home win against Indonesia. In fact, it took a late goal to spare the Kuwaitis’ blushes. Needless to say, to keep the Kuwaitis at bay, the Indonesians had to keep things tight and compact in midfield all the way to the backline.

Remember comments in the Indonesian press about their coaching staff saying that, in the semi-final against us, it was for them as though they were playing against a European team? That was a reference to the Caucasian physique of majority of our players. If the Indonesians could hold off the Kuwaitis, then our boys – with their bigger body builds – sure as hell can, too!

Oh by the way, have I mentioned that the Indonesians also managed a draw against the Aussies?

Everything depends, now, on how Michael Weiss will set the Azkals up to play. I would like to see the conservative approach, especially in the Kuwait leg of the tie. Perhaps, Weiss ought to pay a visit to Arsene Wenger and ask how much silverware Arsenal’s pretty football has won lately. Never mind if we get criticism for playing conservatively; I, for one, think the Kuwait tie is very, very winnable, indeed!

Go ask those who had played under me; I am seldom optimistic!

A lot has been said about the loss of Aly Borromeo and Stephane Schrock. Nobody had even seen the latter before the Colombo leg; and it is said the Jerry Lucena – a burly midfielder who excelled in the Challenge Cup – will be available. For a park-the-bus approach, Manny Ott will be a bigger loss than Schrock; and Ott is not suspended.

As for Borromeo, the sooner we feel happy that he is available for the home leg rather than be unhappy that he is not for the first, the better it will be for our chances. It is a game of 11 players. Aly is a great leader and a great warrior; but he does not fly with a red cape and wear jockey shorts outside his pants.

Hold Kuwait in Kuwait; then raise hell in the return leg in Manila! That is the proper way to play a two-legged tie, as all European and Latin American teams know. It is said that the return leg will be a night game. Considering the excuses that were being said about the Azkals playing poorly in Colombo because of the sudden change of climate, it is a wonder that nobody thought of at least a late afternoon schedule for the Sri Lanka game – if just to help our Europe-based players.

I will end by telling you all this story about the first-ever World Youth Cup in 1980 which was hosted by Australia. Against all odds, the youngsters from Qatar made it all the way to the final to line up against West Germany. I was expecting a tight match; but the West Germans won 4-nil.

It did not make sense, until I saw the highlights of the match on TV and the commentator explained that it was played in torrential rain. The Qataris, the commentator said, saw more rain fall during that match than they ever saw in their entire lives. They never adjusted to the playing conditions.

Uhrm... Kuya Kim, may we have a low pressure area on July 28 please…

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