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Thais Nip Azkals; But There Is Still All to Play for

No excuses. To offer any will be akin to painting enamel over rust. The Philippines were poor against Thailand in their opening fixture in the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup last night – especially so in a disjointed first half. The one consolation to offer those who look for portents in moments of distress is that Malaysia played even worse in a 1-5 opening day loss to hosts Indonesia in 2010 – and subsequently went on to win the championship.

Yet, for all of Thailand’s possession and shot statistics, any claims of Thai superiority will be well wide of the mark. Indeed, the fact that the Philippines could lose by a mere 1-2 to the hosts despite playing poorly may be the biggest source of optimism for Filipino fans.

Were it not for an ultimately fatal two-minute spell as the first half drew to a close, The Thais would not be sitting atop the opening day Group A table. Truth be told, although the Thais scored two finely crafted goals, but for these they really failed to work Eduard Sacapaño in the Philippines goal.

Because such a disjointed Philippines performance screamed lack of cohesion, another question to ponder is whether Weiss have been better served had he started with the players who played so well against Singapore in Cebu.
The first came in the 38th minute when Jakkapan Pornsai pounced on a low cross from the right, giving Sacapaño absolutely no chance to save. Ray Jónsson – who has not looked comfortable or convincing at rightback – was the closest Filipino defender but was caught ball-watching as the goal was scored.

The Thais added a second a mere two minutes later as the Philippines appeared dazed by the opening goal and looked extremely wobbly at the back. Anucha Kitpongsri latched on to a superb flick and rounded both Jónsson and Sacapaño before firing into the roof of the net.

The Philippines defending was as classical as mistakes could get. Central defenders Rob Gier and Juani Guirado both stepped up to meet the attack but were beaten by the flick, leaving Jónsson and Dennis Cagara – the leftback – stranded behind with acres of space between them.

The Philippines tightened up at the back in the second half but continued to huff and puff going forward. The introduction of Patrick Reichelt – who, it can be argued, on recent form probably should have started – gave the Philippines the fearlessness going forward that it earlier lacked.

It was Reichelt who pounced on a Thai defensive mistake in the 76th minute and set up Paul Mulders for a clinically finished goal.

Despite remaining in the lead, the Thais were aware of the danger still posed by the Philippines and spent the final quarter of an hour punting away clearances and resorting to petty fouls and theatrics to waste away the minutes.

Questions will hover about the officiating, with Philippines coach Hans Michael Weiss offering the night’s most entertaining cameo by throwing the ball at a prostrate Thai defender. He was promptly shown the red by the Japanese referee. This was just one instance when the latter blew for a foul where television replays showed there was none.

Meanwhile, Juani Guirado had his lips bloodied by a flailing elbow which would have been red elsewhere but in the Suzuki Cup. Phil Younghusband was the other victim of a Thai elbow, although whether it was deliberate or not was not as apparent as the one on Guirado.

Overall, though, the Philippines performance was out of sorts, with players frequently failing to complete elementary ten-yard passes and thus failing to string together any real passages of sustained ball possession.

The loose officiating helped the Thais, who it must be said were quicker to the ball and when beaten did not think twice about planting studs on opposing players’ calves. They were just being Thais.

Because such a disjointed Philippines performance screamed lack of cohesion, another question to ponder is whether Weiss have been better served had he started with the players who played so well against Singapore in Cebu.

On the other hand, although a loss, the game allows the Europe-based players to settle down and do away with pre-tournament nerves. With neither Vietnam nor Myanmar looking particularly convincing in last night’s opening fixture, there is still all to play for this week.

After all, if there is one positive thing that comes naturally with playing badly, it is that a team can always get better.

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