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Dooley’s Azkals Take Shape in 3-Nil Win Over Nepal

At one end of the spectrum, there are those matches such as against Azerbaijan when national pride has to be sacrificed in exchange for advanced lessons in the international game of football. The results of these matches may not be pretty to look at; but these are nonetheless essential for teams with ambition to climb the ladder of international football.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are also those matches that are arranged not only to build up confidence but also to keep sharp with playing patterns and introduce new players. The FIFA international friendly between the Philippines and Nepal, therefore, could not have come at a more appropriate time.

Newly-appointed coach Thomas Dooley was onto his third game at the helm, his team still winless and yet to score. Moreover, FIFA rankings released the day before saw the Philippines at 143, a 13-point drop from its previous position.

No disrespect to Nepal, who did not come to roll over; but the team from the Himalayas was still the tonic as the doctor so ordered. The Nepalese were comfortable on the ball; but in areas of the pitch where they could not threaten the Philippines.

The paradox of football is that while it is essentially a simple game, getting eleven players to play it simply is among the most difficult things for a coach to achieve. It is this simplicity, in fact, that makes football the beautiful game that is.
Whatever efforts they had to score troubled more the ball boys behind goal than debuting Philippine goalkeeper Nicholas O’Donnel, who was not stretched all game long.

Moreover, the Nepalese kept hoofing long balls into the Philippine box; but these were always going to be bread and butter for the tall central defensive partnership of Robert Gier and Juani Guirado.

The Nepalese aside, what was quickly being apparent was that Dooley has not been spending his time in the Philippines soaking in the sun on some pristine white-sanded beach. The former American international has been working hard; and the fruits of his labour are evident for all and sundry to see on the pitch.

Firstly, Dooley has not been timid about giving new faces their moments in the limelight. Apart from O’Donnel, also in the starting line-up were UK-born Curt Dizon and Daisuke Sato.

Dizon it was, in fact, who opened scoring for the Philippines in the 15th minute. A corner was cleared by Nepal but only towards the feet of a Filipino defender. When the ball was played back in, Dizon was quick to take advantage of a half-baked offside trap to slip the ball under Nepalese goalkeeper Kiran Lumbu to mark his debut with a dream goal.

The early goal was just reward for the Azkals’ endeavour. The Azkals strung together neat little touch passes even when in tight spaces but, crucially, worked hard to get the ball back when possession was lost.

The quickness with which the Filipinos regained possession would have been particularly pleasing to Dooley, who has preached the team ethic since he arrived. The way the Philippines kept its shape for almost the entire match was more evidence of this ethic.

A second goal duly arrived in the 32nd minute when James Younghusband, whose crossing ability was missed in the recent friendlies against Malaysia and Azerbaijan, sent in a measured cross from the right flank which Martin Steuble met with a thumping header.

The goal that added gloss to this satisfying victory did not arrive until the 90th minute. Simon Greatwich slipped the ball through to Ruben Doctora Jr. inside the box after neat interplay by the Filipinos.

Doctora, who shows time and again in league football what an accomplished finisher he is, finally showed he can replicate this in the international game. The diminutive striker took the ball in stride, cut inside and slipped the ball past Lumbu for the Azkal’s third goal of the night.

The Filipinos could have replicated their 4-nil victory in 2011 over the same team at the Rizal Memorial had the Kuwaiti referee not waved away a clumsy challenge on Doctora inside the box in the 55th minute. Replays showed that the tackle could well have been called for a penalty.

In the end, however, the number of goals scored by the Philippines was merely the icing on the cake. The football itself was the spectacle. Dooley’s Azkals are taking shape; and that shape is fodder for optimism.

It is a team of players who work hard and for each other; who will not merely hoof the ball away when the goal is under threat; and who patiently string passes together in search for openings.

While Nepal did not have the players who could break as quickly as Malaysia did, it was nonetheless noteworthy how quickly the Filipinos tracked back to get behind the ball when possession was lost. The problem of transition from attack to defence – and vice-versa – apparently has already been dealt with.

The paradox of football is that while it is essentially a simple game, getting eleven players to play it simply is among the most difficult things for a coach to achieve. It is this simplicity, in fact, that makes football the beautiful game that is.

That is why, while the goals might have given the basketball-educated crowd in the stadium something to cheer about in the sultry night, in fact it was the football itself that the Azkals were playing that was a sight to behold.

They kept it simple, knocked the ball around at pace, patiently probed for openings, took their chances when they came and worked hard to get the ball back. The shape of Dooley’s Azkals, indeed, is looking good.