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Azkals Loss to Azerbaijan No Disgrace

It could not have been more obvious to new Philippines coach Thomas Dooley what needs to be done to take his team to the next level after last night’s 1-nil surrender to Azerbaijan in a FIFA friendly in Dubai. That is, play opponents of the same calibre more.

For most of the first half, the Filipinos played as though totally in awe of being on the same pitch as a European team, and one that had earned draws against Russia and Belgium in recent UEFA qualifying.

Having the more technical players and precise in their approach, the Azerbaijanis for most of the first half had the Filipinos chasing shadows. Whatever crumbs of possession the latter were allowed were quickly snuffed out as the Filipinos themselves, still unable to settle down, misplaced passes or failed to control them with alarming regularity.

Not that, for all their flattering possession stats, Azerbaijan had plenty to offer going forward. Indeed, being on the back foot as they probably often find themselves in European qualifying, the Azerbaijanis were almost timid in the attacking third of the pitch.

Memo to Dooley: Please arrange a friendly cup of tea with Brendan Rodgers. The Liverpool boss would probably attest to the efficacy of a quicker transition against stubborn defences. Note Schröck to Younghusband pass.
The goal, which came in the 26th minute, did not even carry an air of inevitability about it. A soft corner was conceded by the Philippines on the left flank, and towering defender Elvin Yunuszada rose literally head and shoulders above the entire defence to power his header past Patrick Deyto.

That goal apart, the night was relatively peaceful for the young Green Archers United goalkeeper, who won his second straight international cap in the absence of Roland Müller and Neil Etheridge.

In fact, whatever Dooley must have said during the halftime break seemed to have the effect of making the Filipinos shed the feeling of being awestruck. Martin Steuble, starved of space in the first half, started to play with more composure and improved his distribution.

As the Filipinos began making better use of pockets of spaces that they were starting to find, it was almost inevitable that Stephan Schröck’s influence would also start to grow. A deep searching pass in the 50th minute from the Eintracht Frankfurt player found Phil Younghusband behind the Azerbaijan defence for the only time in the entire match.

Younghusband chested the ball down to set himself up for a shot; but his touch was too strong and the ball ran away from him. Towering Amran Agayev in the Azerbaijan goal gratefully collected.

Four minutes later, Younghusband shot from distance for the Philippines’ first on target. The shot had a touch of both eagerness and frustration and was probably not the best option available. Agayev had no problem collecting.

The Philippines won a succession of freekicks as Azerbaijan became increasingly physical in their defending. From the best of these, Younghusband curled his freekick a mere foot above the left hand corner of the goal.

Agayev was finally stretched in the 75th minute when Jeffrey Christiaens, who was outstanding all night, sent in a cross which substitute Patrick Reichelt met with a diving header. The ball was heading for the upper right corner and Agayev was happy to push the ball out for a corner.

In stoppage time, Schröck found himself with space on the left side of the penalty box but overcooked the pie as he rather tends to do every now and again instead of sending an early cross back to put more pressure on the Azerbaijani defence.

Dooley’s Azkals have yet to score, but there ought to be plenty of satisfaction to be derived from even this narrow loss to Azerbaijan. If the Philippines could recover its wits after a mere half of being awestruck, what possibilities would there be if we played similar opposition more regularly?

Dare followers on the team now dream of friendlies against Russia, Belgium and Turkey? Implicit to the scoreline is that the Philippines will not be overrun as they regularly used to be even by their own Asian neighbours.

Azerbaijan, nonetheless, gave the Philippines a right proper lesson in how to play an away game; and that there are merits even to playing ugly. The first part of the lesson was how to take advantage of set pieces; and then how to collectively protect a goal once it has been scored.

But for a handful of chances, the Philippines were accorded extremely rare glimpses of the Azerbaijan goal. While the Filipinos were allowed territorial advantage in the second half, translating this into chances would have to be something for Dooley to work on.

While it was good for Filipino confidence to shuffle the ball at the back and build attacks up with intricate passing, the deliberateness of the attacks also allowed the Azerbaijan defence time to organise at the back.

Memo to Dooley: Please arrange a friendly cup of tea with Brendan Rodgers. The Liverpool boss would probably attest to the efficacy of a quicker transition against stubborn defences. Note Schröck to Younghusband pass.

There was no disgrace whatsoever from this loss to Azerbaijan. While the opposition might have given the Filipinos a lesson or two about the international game, it was more about what the Filipinos learned about themselves that makes the future exciting.

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