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No Dream Result for Azkals vs DPR Korea

DPR Korea 2 Philippines 0. This was how the scoreboard read at the end of 90 minutes in the Philippines’ debut match at the final stage of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup. The significance lays not at all in the result; but rather in the simple fact that the Philippines was on the same pitch as the North Koreans in the first place. Almost two years ago, some of these very same North Koreans were in South Africa making Brazil work hard for its money in a World Cup encounter.

That was probably why, in the first half, the Philippines looked very much like a team that was not only awestruck but also still trying to come to terms with the fact that it was now playing at these heretofore unexplored heights.

How the team reached the half with the match still scoreless, we will all credit to Divine Intervention and a young man who goes by the name of Neil Dula Etheridge.

A 17th minute penalty awarded to DPR Korea was soft to begin with. The initial penalty was successful; but the referee, probably realizing how foolhardy the call was, had it retaken for encroachment.

Anticipating that the spot kick would be placed to the inside of the same post, Etheridge dove to his right. The shot, however, was sent straight down the middle. With lightning reflex, Etheridge palmed the ball upwards and then got up to nonchalantly pluck the ball from the air as it came down.

Etheridge, perhaps, was having a busier afternoon than he would have cared for. First, he had to leave his line to force a Korean striker to go lateral, giving the Filipino defenders time to recover and snuff the threat out. Etheridge also injured himself after clattering into a Korean in a race for the ball.

No surprise, DPR Korea enjoyed most of the possession without really looking particularly sharp when presented with goalscoring opportunities. In fact, the Koreans looked more threatening breaking out of defence when the Filipinos were caught stranded upfield.

The pattern continued in the second half, with the Koreans comfortable on the ball and continuing to weave their passing patterns. The goal, when it arrived, predictably came from the left flank.

I fretted as soon as I saw the starting line-up because Carlos de Murga had been named at rightback. While de Murga is an excellent player, he is not at all gifted with pace. He was exposed as early as the first minute and was outpaced time and again by the fleetfooted Koreans.

In the 57th minute, de Murga allowed a ball to float over his head and lost the chase to a Korean player. From the cross, DPR Korea scored with a header that left Etheridge with no chance. The marking in front of goal, perhaps, left a lot to be desired. Still, it was no more than what DPR Korea deserved for all its enterprise.

For all his heroism in the first half, it was regrettable that DPR Korea’s second goal came after Etheridge flapped at an innocuous cross from the right flank in the 69th minute. There was a nudge, perhaps, from the Korean striker. In all honesty, though, it was not the Etheridge’s first spill of the afternoon.

The Philippines had its best patch as it was becoming increasingly apparent that the game was lost. No longer pressured by having to keep out the immeasurably more experienced Koreans, the Filipinos began to relax, string their own passes and even put pressure on the DPR Korean goal.

Not coincidentally, this patch was also when Chieffy Caligdong and Lexton Moy had replaced the tiring tandem of Paul Mulders and Marwin Angeles. Rob Gier had also been sent in; and he was immediately barking orders, organizing his defenders and getting his teammates animated.

The significance of this patch should not be lost on fans of the Philippine team. To DPR Korea, the Challenge Cup is – after its World and Asian Cup exploits – no more than a minor tournament. That is why the Koreans enjoyed the composure that the Philippines did not have.

To be able to play with the same type of composure, the Philippines need to play at this level more often. Let it not be forgotten that this was only the country’s second encounter in recent times with a team considered among Asia’s elite.

Despite the apparent pedigree of the opponents, however, in patches and particularly towards the end of the match the Filipinos showed that they could string their own passes and even get behind the DPR Korea defence.

By now, we can all say that we got the difficult one out of the way. Neither India nor Tajikistan has the pedigree of North Korea; and both will be foolhardy to take our team lightly.

In a way, we were fortunate that the Koreans could only manage two goals. You just never know when everything will boil down to goal difference.

We were naïve throwing men forward in the first half to support the few attacks that we could muster. We did this with great success against Malaysia. However, the DPR Koreans are in a totally different league in comparison to our Southeast Asian neighbours.

That was why most of our frantic defending came when DPR Korea broke from the back and our entire midfield line was left chasing shadows by the swiftness of the Korean counterattacks.

The result might not have favoured us; but in truth DPR Korea had little to gain from playing against us. On the other hand, we had everything to gain from playing against them. The experience of just being on the same pitch as the Koreans will prove invaluable for the future.

Who knows? Maybe that experience will already serve us in good stead this Sunday, when we take on India in our second match of the competition. I made it a point to watch India play against Afghanistan in the final of the SAFF Championship. The Indians are not DPR Korea. ‘Nuff said.

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