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Philippine Azkals Cruise to Friendly Win over Maldives

Image captured from video at The AFC Hub YouTube Channel.

Such is football that the fortunes of two countries which contested a five-goal thriller in the semi-finals of what used to be the AFC Challenge Cup can contrast dramatically just one year after the fact.

On the one hand, the Philippine Azkals, served a seemingly cruel joke by the gods of football when ending up in the proverbial group of death of Asian World Cup qualifying.

Two matches since and they have become the embodiment of the maxim ‘fortune favours the brave,’ sitting snugly just behind the North Koreans in the group table as they await the band of Uzbeks to arrive.

On the other hand, the Maldives, who lost their opening two qualifiers albeit by respectable score lines against 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar and Hong Kong and who face the daunting task of hosting the might of China at home on Tuesday.

It was probably with an eye on the China game that the Maldives approached last night’s friendly against the Philippine Azkals at the Rizal Memorial Stadium as a rehearsal for fending off the expectable Chinese siege.

To say they parked the bus is an understatement, particularly in a dour first half when Neil Etheridge in the Philippine goal could have played Clash of Clans on his cell phone and nobody would have noticed.

To be fair, Maldivian conservatism was based on solid logic; and especially so after a night of rugby score lines across the continent.

Bhutan (0-15 v Qatar), Myanmar (0-9 v Kuwait), Laos (0-8 v Korea Republic) and Malaysia (0-10 v the UAE) could have used some of Maldives’ disciplined and compact defending. It was a night that highlighted the chasm between the haves and the have-nots of Asian football.

Maldivian resoluteness was undone, of course, by Mohammed Samdhooh’s glorious 49th minute strike. Samdhooh rose above the entire defence to power his header past the goalkeeper and into the net.

Alas, to his defenders’ chagrin, it was the wrong goal. The Philippine Azkals were happy to receive the unsolicited gift, thank you very much!

Six minutes later and the Azkals were two goals up; but this time without the benefit of Maldivian charity.

Stephan Schröck floated a short corner to the far post, the ball was headed back into the middle and Jerry Lucena administered the coup de grace with another floating header past Imram Mohammed in the Maldives goal.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about how contrasting the two nations’ respective footballing fortunes have become after last year’s Challenge Cup semi-final was that the Azkals seldom needed to leave first gear to earn what would ultimately become a comfortable victory.

Moreover, Thomas Dooley was obviously in tinker mode; and the starting line-up immediately showed that fringe players would be getting their moments under the floodlights, not to mention add to their respective cap tallies.

Any Uzbek scouts in the stands would have struggled to find anything of worth to jot down on his notebook.

Particularly in the second half, when the Azkals’ big names were withdrawn and cameos given to youngsters like OJ Porteria and Paolo Bugas, the team had the look and feel of a second string.

Yet, it was in the second half as the Maldives’ discipline began to waiver that the Philippines started to play football more pleasing to the eye. Patrick Reichelt, obviously benefiting from the width and crossing ability that Iain Ramsay brings to the team, had enough chances to have made the result a more accurate reflection of the run of play.

Maldives only started to show real ambition late in the match, but even in these late forays Etheridge was never really stretched. Young Amani Aguinaldo, playing with a poise that belied his age, ensured that Etheridge was well protected until the final whistle.