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Philippine Azkals: Finding the Player who will Steady the Defense

Even this early, with just two rounds of six AFC Asian Cup qualifying matches having been played, whether or not the Philippines qualify for the tournament proper appears to be entirely in the team’s hands. Eight goals scored in two matches is no small thing, albeit against admittedly modest opposition.

The team can score goals, this much was apparent even against the continent’s elite, as we all saw in the supposed coming of age friendly against China last week. But it is at the opposite end of the field where there is cause for concern; plenty, if we are all being honest.

China, in fact, last week made public the blueprint for how to beat the Azkals with aplomb: give them the ball and lull them into a false sense of security then launch lightning raids down either flank. Alternatively, play up-tempo in their own half and string together quick touch passes.

The problem is less that our defenders are poor and more that there appears to be an abject need for a cool head from midfield down when we do not have possession. This was evident even in the qualifier last night in Dushanbe, particularly after the Tajiks had managed to pull one back by way of an annoyingly soft and dubious penalty.

Albeit still ahead by two goals, as the Tajiks drove forward in search of more goals, suddenly we were snapping into tackles unnecessarily instead of sensibly defending the space in front of the ball. In so doing, we also conceded a rash of unnecessary fouls in dangerous positions, further adding tension to the already frantic way we were defending.

As we did in China…

That period from the Tajik penalty to when Daisuke Sato finally doused the fire with a screamer from outside the box was certifiably harmful to one’s fingernails. Our defending was China-version-2-point-oh; and only Tajikistan’s own limitations ensured that our Azkals headed home three precious away points to the better.

In that frantic period, how we could have used the experience and coolness of a Jerry Lucena, who when in the national colors always looked like his feathers could not be ruffled even by an intensity 7 earthquake.

Unless the Flash can fetch a younger version of Lucena from an alternate universe, Thomas Dooley has a year and a half to find that player who has the coolness and authority to organize the defense and bring down the testosterone levels so that our players do not scamper all over the place like headless chickens.

Phil Younghusband, perhaps, gave us a bit of that when he was anchored deep in midfield and orchestrated play away from the snapping boots of unscrupulous defenders. But there were those among us who whined that the country’s record goal poacher should be closer to goal.

Now that he has been restored upfront and curls Beckham-esque freekicks like he did against the Tajiks as though he does it for fun, it will make no sense to whine that he ought to be playing deeper.

Ah, the travails of the armchair critic…

Who, then, to turn to so that a tad more maturity and composure might be restored at the back? I do not follow the fledgling PFL enough to dare put forth a name; but perhaps in a bedroom in some obscure household some pimply teenager is playing FIFA 2017 on his laptop and will make a discovery similar to that which brought the Younghusbands to our distant shores.

Or, perhaps Dooley prefers to ride out the next year and a half and hope that the same lot who leaked eight against China will have matured enough to ensure we do not again leak as many when the entire continent is watching.

The trip to China was in no way the disaster the scoreline suggests. Particularly in the first half, our passing was crisp and purposeful. We even managed an end-product in Misagh Bahadoran’s goal. But attacking is just one side to the game of football, and the uncelebrated art of defending is just as important as the oft-celebrated art of goalscoring.

Our performances against Nepal and Tajikistan suggest that we can leak goals but still have enough in the armory to get to the UAE. Before we get there, the leaks need to be plugged because as China taught us all just recently, when in the company of the continent’s powerhouses, a tiny leak can quickly become a deluge.

Perhaps it is best that we all leave it to Dooley to figure the conundrum out. He was, after all, a defender. Or, perhaps we start looking for that pimply kid…

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