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Number 11 Beloya Wins Game for Azkals vs Laos on 11-11-11

What is is about the Philippine Under-23 football team that makes it something of a diesel engine; and that it does not seem to want to get started until late in a match? For the second straight game, the team played with purpose and urgency only as the minutes ticked away towards the final whistle.

Albeit, the twist that was served to all of us last night by these masters of irony that is our football team was a rapture of emotions entirely the opposite of the Timor Leste game.

Laos was the foe in a story that had several subplots.

First, the day of the match was the much-anticipated 11-11-11. Second, rightback Carlos de Murga was serving a one-match ban for having accumulated two yellow cards. Finally, team captain Matthew Hartmann – of all people – was rumoured to have stormed out of the team camp after being disciplined by management.

They do say that the animal in the person kicks in when his back is against the wall. Indeed, we saw a statement of intent right from the kickoff, when the white-clad young Azkals pressed high up the field in twos or threes, not giving the Laotians time to settle on the ball.

The Laotians, though, knew a thing or two about holding onto possession; and as has been the trend in our campaign this SEA Games football competition, in the absence of a technically-gifted creative midfielder, we rather tended to give back possession almost as soon as we won it.

That said, for all its passing, Laos – at least in the early exchanges – was not unduly troubling the Philippine goal. This is not to say that our defence was settled. On the contrary, it was anything but; and one wonders if Michael Weiss at all sees what all of us see.

From the opening match, it has been on the left flank that we have laid out a welcome mat. Whether it is Neckson Leonora or – in last night’s case – David Basa at leftback, opponents will continue to exploit that side unless instructions are given to play tight on the opposing winger.

But of course, the first irony was served when we scored the opening goal against the run of play. Jason de Jong lofted a speculative ball to Jinggoy Valmayor in the 6th minute. The latter was being manhandled by the central defender but managed to head the ball into the path of the onrushing Manny Ott, who finished with aplomb.

Laos continued to boss possession; but the nearest it got to scoring was when Roland Müller in the Philippine goal had to tip over a mishit cross that sailed towards goal in the 20th minute. When Laos did equalize in the 37th minute, the play even looked suspiciously offside.

The ball was threaded to the right flank – and our problematical left – and Sinto Lamnao was at the end of the crisp low cross to score.

The Philippines could have restored its lead in the 41st minute when the Laotian goalkeeper flapped at a cross. From the resulting corner, OJ Clariño had a free header and could have done better than sending the ball wide.

Laos snatched the lead early in the second half when the Philippine defence was caught square. It was a simple matter for Lamnao to sneak away and tuck the ball under the desperately diving Müller for his second of the night.

The rug seemed to have been pulled from under the Philippines when Patrick Hinrichsen received his second yellow of the night for a needless foul in the 60th minute. Laos comfortably held onto possession and was not averse to wasting time when the opportunities presented themselves.

But the second irony was only just starting to unfold before our eyes. Down to ten men, the Philippines pushed more and more forward and actually started to look threatening. Jeff Christiaens, in particular, started to look menacing down the left flank; and a couple of inviting crosses needed a tall and powerful striker to meet these.

Still, only the most optimistic among us would have been praying for at least just a merciful draw, difficult as that might have seeemed when we only had ten players on the field. The night of irony, however, was not yet over. Just when we all resigned ourselves to a painful third straight defeat in a tournament that held so much promise, the game turned itself upside down.

Two of Weiss’ substitutes combined for the totally unexpected turn-around, just another testimony to the wide range of emotions that the beautiful game can serve on a silver platter all inside ninety minutes. OJ Porteria slipped the ball down the right to a cutting Mark Hartmann as normal time expired.

Hartmann could still have had a crack at goal even with the narrow angle; but in an instance of maturity cut the ball back towards goal where the onrushing Joshua Beloya had the simplest of tasks tapping the ball into the empty net.

Catharsis was served to all of us; and we would have gratefully clutched at the draw, desperate though it might have seemed. Yet, to Mother Luck, timing is everything; as we all saw one chilly night in Hanoi almost a year ago.

The exhausted Laotian defence made the fatal mistake of pushing high in added time. An innocuous ball came to the feet of Hartmann, who quickly sized up the situation and played a quick ball over the top for Beloya – with fresh legs – to chase. Beloya still had work to do and did well to shield the ball from the desperate Laotian defender.

A bullet of a shot – on the volley – left the Laotian goalkeeper with absolutely no chance in what was practically the last kick of the match. Members of the team all rushed to Beloya in celebration while the Laotians, stunned, looked gutted to have lost a match that they seemingly already had in the bag.

As for Beloya, the country’s new goalscoring hero, the number on his shirt would not have surprised the superstitious: 11.

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