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Etheridge Stands Tall as Azkals Nip Hong Kong, 1-Nil

To the average spectator at the Mong Kok and on national television here in the Philippines, the fear probably was that Neil Etheridge, returning to the starting line-up against Hong Kong in an international friendly last night after having sat out the Challenge Cup qualifiers, would decide in the first half to seek entertainment at nearby Disneyland.

The Philippines in no way were giving a commanding performance; and truth be told, many of the Azkals were in off-season mode. In fact, it was the hosts who were bossing possession, at times making the visitors chase shadows.

Without, it has to be said, doing an awful lot with the inflationary possession statistics. In fact, Etheridge could have sneaked away for a photo shoot with Mickey Mouse without his absence being felt the way the match was going.

They do talk about games of two halves; and this was nothing if not a glowing example. Ball boy in the first half, Etheridge gave a timely reminder to all and sundry that there are truly functional uses for that hulking frame and long reach.

It is of no concern to the Philippines that Hong Kong did not have the ability to finish their chances; and neither is it for the Philippines to apologize that in Etheridge they had a goalkeeper with the ability to fend off everything thrown at him.
Like make the spaces between the posts look frightfully small. Go ask Chan Siu-ki, given the unenviable task in the 67th minute of taking a penalty for Hong Kong after a clumsy challenge inside the box by Juani Guirado.

Etheridge first stopped the shot with his legs then scooped the ball away into safety before Chan could pounce on the rebound. Routine penalty save, thank you very much; now let’s get on with it. Etheridge, as though anyone needs to point it out, has become something of a penalty specialist.

So thus the Philippines held onto a 1-nil lead courtesy of a James Younghusband header in the 34th minute of a largely insipid first half.

Hong Kong passed and passed without really getting behind the Philippines defence, which sat deep and was ably protected by a disciplined and battling midfield. The tactical nous was reminiscent of the Simon McMenemy days.

After a spell of Hong Kong possession, Stephan Schröck galloped forward with the ball in the 34th minute with Hong Kong’s defence anxiously back-pedalling. His ensuing cross, however, was not as measured as the glowing move deserved; and Jeffrey Christiaens, who had raced into the box, missed the ball altogether.

Schröck was not done yet, however; and in the ensuing play, sent in a teasing cross from the left flank which could only be partially cleared by defender Chan Wai-ho. Younghusband, arriving late at the far post, out jumped Cheung Kin-fung to head in what would ultimately be the winning goal.

Hong Kong were not without their moments. The second half substitution of Robert Gier, in particular, opened up the left flank for them. Goalscorer Younghusband, pulled down to rightback, appeared winded and often left it to substitute OJ Porteria to do the tracking back.

Guirado, who had already conceded a penalty, was having one of those nights and gifted the hosts with an 89th minute freekick in a promising position just top of the box. The challenge, perhaps, was innocuous. The question always was if the challenge should have been made at all.

The ensuing kick was well struck and pierced the wall – but was still catching practice for the in-form Etheridge. Even as the Philippines’ defending descended to Sunday park levels as the minutes ticked away, Etheridge stood as an unbreachable fortress. A stunning double save in added time kept the hosts away and preserved his team’s narrow 1-nil lead.

Were you watching, Martin Jol?

One-nil to the Arsenal, they started singing at the old Highbury Stadium when the Gunners developed a nasty ability to protect 1-nil leads.

The Philippines, it must be said, are developing the same resilience along with an ability to ride out their luck. Last night at the Mong Kok was not by any means a performance characterised by panache. It was still comfortable, Hong Kong’s late rally notwithstanding.

In fact, many of the Azkals appeared off-form. Phil Younghusband, while well-shackled was also a tad slow off-the-mark; and Paul Mulders was giving yet another of his jet-lagged performances.

Focal to the Philippines’ resilience was Chris Greatwich, who does not ever seem to have it in him to give less than a one hundred per cent performance. Not, perhaps, you cultured performer at the middle of the park; but one whose commitment is unparalleled.

The shot statistics last night would have flattered Hong Kong. But it is the goals that count.

It is of no concern to the Philippines that Hong Kong did not have the ability to finish their chances; and neither is it for the Philippines to apologize that in Etheridge they had a goalkeeper with the ability to fend off everything thrown at him.

While last night’s match was a friendly, it was nonetheless played competitively. The result should not be shrugged off lightly, not least because Hong Kong held World Cup contenders Uzbekistan to a goalless draw away just last February.

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