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Valuable Insight After Azkals' Goalless Draw With Bahrain

Few goalless draws will ever be as fascinating or as symbolic as the one last night in Manama between the Philippines and Bahrain. The regret of it all is that it was a friendly instead of a two-legged play-off for the World Cup.

The Philippines, despite a three match streak en route to winning the Peace Cup, was supposed to be the upstart that flew across the continent to learn from a team that, in 2006 and 2010, just missed the World Cup after narrowly losing intercontinental play-offs against Trinidad and Tobago and New Zealand.

But, except for a second minute over-the-top ball that caught the Philippines defence square which Roland Müller had to come out for and a 13th minute goal-line clearance by Robert Gier of a shot that did not really have a lot in terms of conviction, Bahrain were not really creating an awful lot in the way of goalscoring chances.

Whatever happens in Kuwait next week, however, cannot take away the valuable insight gained from last night’s goalless draw against Bahrain. Now we know that we can send our team to play against the best of Asia and grind out a result.
Indeed, had Dennis Wolf kept his nerve in the 29th minute when sent through one-on-one for what was easily the best goalscoring chance of the match, then the Philippines could have made the result all the more remarkable.

That Wolf missed what can be described in impolite terms as a sitting duck probably emphasized the fact that we need to rub shoulders more with teams of Bahrain’s quality, if just to give the strikers – along with everyone else – more experience of the big internationals.

That chance was by no means the only time when Wolf got behind the Bahrain defence to take cracks at goal, in contrast to the host team’s possession football that had Müller nonetheless uninvolved for long stretches but for the occasional role of ball boy.

Pretty it was not; and every ball launched from the backline like a Scud missile must have been horrific for purists. Tactically, however, it was spot on – reminiscent of the old Don Revie and Leeds United philosophy of getting the ball out of the dangerous areas quickly and passing in the opponents’ half.

It was the same approach that made the Republic of Ireland team so difficult to play against in the nineties; and even the world’s top teams then knew that they would not be allowed to settle into their short passing rhythms.

Middle Eastern teams tend to have technically gifted individuals who prefer short passing games on the floor. The approach probably works best when the opponents play a similar style.

Last night’s aerial bombardment by the Philippines was probably premised on the assumption that Bahrain would not be quite as comfortable with the ball so much in the air.

Indeed, one such ball in the 4th minute and pressing by Patrick Reichelt high up the pitch intimated that Bahrain’s defence would not be quite as composed as it was generally expected to be.

The Philippines’ chances were more limited in the second half when Bahrain’s technical quality denied the visitors the ball for long stretches. For all their possession, the most dangerous chance that Bahrain created was a 65th minute shot from thirty yards that Müller parried with what was, in all honesty, a television save.

Come, the Philippines’ chances did despite all of Bahrain’s possession. In the 71st minute, Misagh Bahadoran robbed a defender and set up a chance for Wolf, who mystifyingly lost his footing at the point of shooting.

Bahadoran again set up a goalscoring chance for the lively OJ Porteria, introduced as a late substitute, in the 89th minute as the Philippines ended with a flourish. The teenager’s low drive from top of the box was, however, saved.

Honours were even, thus, for the first-ever full international between the two countries; but there was no question about who came out of the goalless stalemate with more to gain.

The Philippines looked fit and kept its tactical shape despite the oppressive heat. Crucially, the players were not being sucked into stamina-sapping pressing and running high up the pitch as they were last year in the first leg of the World Cup qualifier in Kuwait City.

Even as Bahrain shuffled the ball around the back, the Filipinos moved just as languidly to cover the passing lanes and – more importantly – to conserve energy. The players have learned to pace themselves and looked even stronger as the game drew to a close.

There is every chance that this result is a one-off and that we will be sent crashing back to earth in Tuesday’s international against Kuwait. Playing against a team that one has never played against before, after all, is not exactly the same as against a more familiar foe.

Whatever happens in Kuwait next week, however, cannot take away the valuable insight gained from last night’s goalless draw against Bahrain. Now we know that we can send our team to play against the best of Asia and grind out a result.

The fact will not be lost on followers of the Philippines that last night’s team did not even have the Younghusband brothers, Neil Etheridge, Angel Guirado, Jason Sabio and, of course, the outstanding Stephan Schröck.

Whoever among our Asean neighbours watched last night’s match must have been fidgeting uncomfortably in their seats. The sooner one question gets answered, though, the better it will be for all concerned in the Philippines.

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