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Positives from the Long Teng Cup

Naturally, because many of those who jumped onto the Azkals bandwagon would not really know that building a football team is a tad more complicated than Harry Potter wielding his magic wand, there were those who were disappointed with the team’s performance in the recently concluded Long Teng Cup in Kaoshiung. It was as though finishing second behind Hong Kong, the tournament’s defending champion and who we led 3-2 with a mere 5 minutes of regular time remaining, was a denigration of the team’s standing in world football.

Personally, I thought it was a great campaign for the Azkals. For starters, the final standings merely reflected the participating nations’ respective positions in the FIFA Men’s World Rankings at the time of the tournament. Hong Kong was at 156, the Philippines at 166, Chinese Taipei at 172 and lowly Macau at 186.

Not that I subscribe to what the world rankings tell us. We were better than Hong Kong, full-stop. It brought a full-strength squad. We did not. Even so, were it not for our sleepy-eyed opening 20 minutes against it, we were the better team. Had the rebound fallen kindly for us after the 85th-minute Hong Kong freekick that led to the equalizer, we would have won the tournament. With a full squad, our players could have brought a beach umbrella and some iced tea to the pitch and we still would have won the tournament.

Not that winning it would have been something to really crow about; albeit, a trophy would have added some glitter to a barren display room. The Long Teng Cup had “warm-up” written all over it. It was a convenient laboratory for experimentation during which coaches could try out new faces and tactical permutations. From this perspective alone, participation was already well worth the bother.

I cannot say that I agree a hundred per cent with everything that Michael Weiss has so far laid out for us; but he was spot on with the way he treated this tournament. The 2010 edition of the cup was the launch pad for what would eventually turn out to be a fairytale run in the Suzuki Cup. This time around, we saw starting and cameo roles for players who will be wearing the all-blue in the coming Southeast Asian Games. Who is to say that this tournament will not be a launch pad as well for another fairy tale run in the SEA Games?

We saw players who will be challenging for starting places even in a full-strength squad, let alone the Under-23 team. Oliver Poetschke looked tall, rangy and poised beside Aly Borromeo in central defence. Poetschke is 25 and will not suit up for the team in the SEA Games; but it is comforting to know that there is already a next-in-line to the ageing Rob Gier.

The player I am really excited about is young Mark Hartmann. A bit petulant, perhaps; but the lad is only 19. His careless tweet complaining about not starting again before the Chinese Taipei match and wanting to fly back home was properly dealt with. He spent the match warming his derriere.

In the final game against Macau, though, he showed everyone what he was capable of. What cultured feet the lad has! Go ask Chieffy Caligdong. Both Hartmann passes leading to the goals were inch-perfect. The lad needs to develop a work ethic on the field; but one advantage of his being young is that Weiss has time to work on him.

Another player who caught the eye was Carlos de Murga. So maybe slotting him into rightback in place of the ineffectual Roel Gener in the first match against Hong Kong might have been forced upon Weiss. Personally, I was more impressed with de Murga when he prowled the midfield in the first half of the same game.

The boy is the sort of technical player who brings team-mates into the game. In glimpses, we saw this sort of awareness in Paul Mulders during the Sri Lanka World Cup encounters. Stephan Schrock is the sort of all-action dynamic midfielder who battles aggressively for possession and then sprays long passes forward.

That is well and good against opposing teams that play with high defensive lines. Against teams that play with ten men top of the box, a more measured short passing game is more appropriate. Were it up to me, I would consider using de Murga ala Fabregas or Arteta. At any rate, even if de Murga is preferred at rightback, Anton del Rosario will still be having serious competition. De Murga’s lack of pace weighs against him, though.

What I really liked about the way we played in the whole tournament – the opening 20 minutes against Hong Kong apart – was that even when opponent were hogging ball possession, they were not really creating much in the way of dangerous chances. That is progress for you; not to mention intelligence and organization.

In the second match against Chinese Taipei, for instance, we were really poor for long stretches yet the Chinese could do no more than shoot from distance. With a goalkeeper of the calibre of Roland Mueller – another significant find – there were more chances of an alien spacecraft landing on my backyard than the Chinese scoring. Of course, not winning was disappointing; but even when we were playing Sunday park quality football, our goal was safe. That, in my books, is a positive thing.

One does not have to be Einstein to see that where the whole campaign was found sorely lacking: goalscoring. Phil Younghusband was probably the guiltiest of profligacy. But hey; he and brother James were only recently bereaved. I have nothing but admiration for the two for flying out with the team despite their loss.

Besides, Phil was not the only one profligate. God knows we created more than sufficient chances to finish off all three teams with aplomb. The fact that we scored a total of 5 goals and four of these were scored by one player – Caligdong, a midfielder at that – means Weiss will probably be thinking up more finishing drills.

On an aside – and do not laugh at me – does anyone know what brand of boots Phil is using? I was just wondering, especially during the Chinese Taipei match, why his shots mostly ended up in Row Z. Call me trivial, but Brand A boots are mostly boat-shaped and difficult for the straight instep technique needed to keep the ball down. Brand B may be less ergonomic, but it has flat insteps that I always thought perfect for shooting. Back to normal broadcasting…

Now, the team is off to Singapore to play the first of two friendly internationals that will hopefully yield higher FIFA rankings. Unlike in the Long Teng Cup, we ought to be more or less at full strength. Just the fact that we are playing during FIFA’s so-called international breaks makes me a happy man already.

Yes, we might have finished a mere second in the Long Teng Cup; but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Don’t the Chinese have a proverb that says “one step backward two steps forward?” From a third place finish in last year’s edition of the same tournament, we went on a roll that brought us to the heights of the Suzuki Cup. Call me superstitious – or a fool – but what chances are there that our second place finish will take us all the way to the final of the SEA Games?

We will all find out in a couple of months’ time, will we not?

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