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What the 3-nil Win over Cambodia Tells us Ahead of the Suzuki Cup

A 13th minute cannonball from the ever-effervescent Fil-Samurai Daisuke Sato, a 40th minute right-place-right-time follow through by Manny Ött and a second half added time God’s mercy goal by Phil Younghusband when he was almost dispossessed before scoring gave the Philippine Azkals a comfortable 3-nil win over Cambodia last night in a friendly international at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

It was the Azkals’ send-off match before they fly out to Hanoi for the 2014 edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup; and the stands were crying for spectators. But on a payday Friday with mall sales going on all over the metropolis, not even an eight o’clock kick-off could tempt the fans to send off the squad with gusto.

Thomas Dooley needs to win the Suzuki Cup to reignite the fervour; and whether his squad can or not last night’s friendly against Cambodia offered some clues.

Cambodia were the Right Team to Play

Cambodia were the perfect choice as a final opponent for the Philippine Azkals before the Suzuki Cup. The Indo-Chinese team had just come from the Suzuki Cup qualification round and would, therefore, give the Azkals an advance feel of the tournament.

Cambodia were unlucky not to qualify for the tournament proper, having narrowly lost to eventual qualifiers Laos and Myanmar. The team’s approach play is better than Myanmar’s, as everyone saw in the second half of last night’s friendly against the Azkals.

In fact, in the crucial encounter between Cambodia and Myanmar during the qualifiers, Myanmar were being pegged back inside their own half for long stretches. What the Cambodians lacked was the defensive meanness that Myanmar possessed aplenty and a clinical edge at the attacking end. These we saw evidences of again last night at the Rizal Memorial.

The Azkals’ Most Fluid Performance in a While

Last night was one of the Azkals’ most fluid – if not THE most fluid – performance during the Dooley era. That is, in an attacking sense, as indeed there were defensive hiccups every now and again that need fixing before the Suzuki Cup commences.

There was a nice balance to the starting line-up which was not there in Bangkok the previous Sunday; although understandably Dooley probably did not want to reveal all his cards to the Thais.

I have always regarded Ött as a thinking sort of player. Thus, I was happy to see him restored last night not just to the starting line-up but also to his natural position at centre-midfield. His partnership with Martin Steuble, which I do not recall we had seen before, was promising and ensured that our passing was crisp and possession was sustained.

That said, because the Azkals continued to look vulnerable to the counterattack, it may be wiser to ask Ött to reprise his role in the 2012 World Cup qualifiers and sit in front of the central defence more than Steuble. The latter is arguably better at the attacking end.

Phil Younghusband’s Best Game in the Dooley Era

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of last night’s performance by the Azkals was the return to form of Phil Younghusband. His record 40th goal for the country was just the icing on the cake.

He was playing for and with the team rather than for himself as he sometimes tended to do; and consequently looked like he was enjoying himself more. The rest of Southeast Asia had better be forewarned. This Younghusband is back; and the timing could not have been better.

Since Dooley took over the reins, Younghusband had played often as though too eager to prove himself to the new coach. So much so that the harder he tried, and the more he failed, the psychological burden inevitably became heavier and took its toll on his confidence.

Last night, he just went with the flow, took his chances when they came and carried on when he failed to score. The team was playing well and he was very much a vital component of it. Moreover, he looked sharper than I had seen him in a while. The goal, when it came in second half added time, was no more than what he deserved.

He almost lost the ball just before he actually scored; but the aplomb with which he finished was a reminder to all and sundry that there are few better finishers in the region when given half a sight of goal. He cannot be given second servings.

What was more remarkable was that the goal came just moments after an embarrassing miss when he turned Kenshiro Daniel’s cross well over the crossbar from five yards out. As the cliché goes, you cannot keep a good man down for long.

The Defence Continues to Look Shaky

That the Azkals kept a clean sheet last night was as much due to Cambodia’s lack of finishing as it was to Patrick Deyto’s brilliance. In the 60th minute, for instance, Simone Rota switched off momentarily and allowed Cambodia to take a quick throw-in. The consequence of this was a goalmouth melee when Deyto had to pull off two saves in quick succession.

For all Deyto’s brilliance, however, there were moments when it felt that he and his central defenders were not on the same page. The lad is young, granted, but he needs to learn to command his area the way Neil Etheridge used to.

Cambodia could not have done us a better favour in the second half than pressing us high up the pitch and passing the ball well in our defensive half. This gave us a vital exercise in defending as a unit and gave us all an insight about how our defenders will cope under pressure. The Azkals, it has to be said, generally coped well when under siege.

It is not, however, when the Azkals are sitting back and absorbing attacks when they are most vulnerable. On the contrary, the Azkals’ defence always looks shaky when caught stranded upfield and struggling to contain rapid counterattacks.

It is never good to see a player injured, but Juani Guirado’s entry after injury to Rob Gier gave central defence that wee bit more stability. For one, Guirado is an imposing figure at the heart of defence. For another, he is left-sided and complements Amani Aguinaldo’s right-sidedness. Both are also more mobile than Gier, who has looked a tad weary of late.

Can We Win It?

The Suzuki Cup, that is! Personally, after seeing the ease with which the Thais dismantled us in Bangkok last Sunday, I was not feeling too optimistic. Last night’s performance, however, raised my optimism by several notches.

Notwithstanding the fact that we were playing the world’s 185th ranked team, the Philippines actually played with a fluidity that we had not seen for a while. The Azkals under Dooley are not afraid to play higher up the pitch and dominate opponents territorially, something we saw even in Bangkok despite the humbling loss.

If we can build on last night’s performance, grow into the tournament and peak at the right time, who knows? Crucially, many of our players seem to be hitting form just at the right moment. Patrick Reichelt comes to mind. He had sometimes looked at sixes and sevens in matches played after the Challenge Cup but last night gave a half-decent performance.

All the lovely football aside, it is actually defence that wins tournament as Singapore, the 4-time Suzuki Cup champions, have shown time and again. Even against weaker opponents, the Azkals’ defence had managed to look vulnerable.

Dooley has chopped and changed frequently in search of his best team, but I would like nothing more than for him to decide on his preferred central defensive partnership and allow it to settle. If Dooley can stabilise the defence and Younghusband and Hartmann can find the goals, maybe we will all have a really Merry Christmas.

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