OPINION: Takeaways from the Azkals’ maiden AFC Asian Cup campaign

The Philippine Azkals came up short in mounting a miracle amd extending their participation in their historic AFC Asian Cup 2019 participation after suffering a 3-1 defeat against Kyrguz Republic last January 16 in Dubai.

As the Azkals start to pack their bags ahead of their return home, here are some takeaways from their debut tournament:

The FIFA rankings prevailed in Group C

There are no surprises or upsets in the Azkals’ group as perennial World Cup participants South Korea claim a perfect haul of points with nine followed by continental sleeping giants China who notch up six points as Kyrgyz Republic round up the haul with three from a solitary win against the Philippines who end the campaign winless.

The Azkals came into the tournament as outsiders being a newly emerging football nation and the lowest-ranked country in Group C.

After an almost surprise debut match – coming close to shutting out highly rated South Korea towards a narrow 1-0 loss with a laudable defensive effort by Sven-Goran Eriksson’s wards, the Philippines dropped their following games to bow out of the first phase of the competition.

Reality check for the Philippines

The Azkals’ capability to qualify really raised the hopes of Filipino football fans heading into the tournament dreaming for at least one positive result.

However, as the Philippine team’s official tournament slogan “To Dream the Impossible” seems to ring true, it pretty much was a mountainous task as the squad signed off without getting a point and a “-6” goal difference with only Stephan Schrock’s consolation goal against Kyrgyz Republic [more on that later] the only shot from the team that found the back of the net.

Despite a promising opening match against South Korea that ended in just a 1-0 loss amidst predictions of a lopsided result in favor of the Taeguk Warriors, the following two matches ended in 3-0 [against China] and 3-1 [against Kyrgyz Republic] losses. 

Such campaign results raise one aspect to improve on: Creating and scoring chances. Defensively, the Philippines were already generally sound [save maybe in the first half of their last fixture against Kyrgyz Republic]. But the midfield and frontline still needs to get better in terms of their understanding with each other when it comes to attacking and finishing to score goals. 

Stephan Schrock pulled off another impossible goal

The Philippine Azkals’ star midfielder, Stephan Schrock, scored another magical goal right at the 80th minute off a free kick from way out.

The goal  proved to be just a consolation though with the opposing team already well in command with three goals in the bag already and with only roughly thirteen minutes left in the match. It also proved to be the only goal of the Philippines in their Asian Cup debut which is now etched in history – a great individual feat.

That special serving by Schrock was reminiscent of the one he scored in another losing effort against Uzbekistan last September of 2015 in a World Cup qualifier match.

Time and time again, the Ceres-Negros gem has proven that he is the man for the occasion, pulling off goals from out of nowhere.

But with these two amazing goals, I just hope in the near future that Schrock scores off another mind-boggling effort in different circumstances – with the squad winning rather than losing.

On Sven-Goran Eriksson

From the time he took the reigns as the Azkals’ head coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson amassed two wins, two draws and five losses [2W, 2D, 5L – friendlies not included]. It’s obviously not an ideal run of results but it is to note that he has only been on board as of late October 2018 on a six-month contract which is too short for a national team coach to really impose his system.

His contract is set to end late April 2019, and maybe that’s the only time that he is able to really start getting to instill his managerial and coaching “signature” to the squad but with him mentoring the Akals, it is no surprise that many overseas-based and local Filipino players are keen to be called up to the national team just to have a chance to play under the multi-titled coach.

I personally do hope he extends his handling of the team, but in the end, the decision is his to make.

The end of the “Azkals Golden Generation”?

Stephan Schrock, Phil and James Younghusband, Javier Patino, Carli De Murga, Patrick Reichelt, and Alvaro Silva – These are some of the players who are currently 30-years-old and above and could see their playing days for the Azkals get shorter every match day.

These players have indeed been on a league of their own as they contributed their part immensely to Philippines’ climb in terms of its reputation as a footballing nation and their services will be missed once they hang up their boots when it comes to international duty.

But despite the impending end of an era, a new batch of talents are waiting to take their place and the pool of potentials is slowly increasing as they jostle for position in terms of callups.

From already reputable young players such as Amani Aguinaldo, Marco Casambre, Paolo Bugas, Paolo Salenga, Curt Dizon, Luke Woodland, John-Patrick Staruss and Mike Ott [to name some] to potentials, both local and foreign-based, such as Javier Gayoso, Michael Kempter, Oliver Bias, JB Borlongan and Joshua Grommen [to name a very few], the conveyor belt is already set for the next generation of Azkals who will play along new leaders by then such as Manny Ott, Neil Etheridge, Michael Falkesgaard and Daisuke Sato.

But the main concern now is we hope we get to see more matches [friendly matches in particular] when it comes to our junior squads for AFF/AFC competitions such as U-23, U-19, U-16, and U-14 [not to mention the women’s team and their junior counterparts] because those are where talents get developed and honed at an international level in preparation for being able to compete in tournament qualifiers.

In conclusion

The AFC Asian Cup 2019 stint of the Azkals has been a massive achievement already for a nation of such a profile when it comes to the greater schemes in the world of football. Here’s to hoping Philippine football make the most of it and sustain such level of competitiveness from this point onwards.

Photo credit: AFC Asian Cup

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