Of Fortitude and Grit: On the Azkals’ monumental WCQ2022 draw vs China

With progressing to the third round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers on the line, the Philippine Azkals just achieved a massive goalless draw against a much higher ranked China last October 15, 2019 in Panaad to earn probably its most precious point in its entire history of competing in international football.

China, ranked 59 places above the Philippines in the most recent FIFA rankings at the time of this writing, came to Panaad with the favorites tag. But after the final whistle, both teams ended sharing the spoils in a stalemate encounter that may have gone either way.

Here are some five reasons why relative underdogs, the Azkals, were able to pull off quite a notable result in international football.

NEIL ETHERIDGE WAS A ROCK

Cardiff City FC shot-stopper, Neil Etheridge, had been in fine form against China’s Dragons, pulling off some amazing stops to earn himself and his team a clean-sheet against a side known for its firepower.

Neil’s return to the national squad after missing out all the previous matches in 2019 due to club commitments and, lately, to recover from an injury provided a notch in the squad’s defensive solidity.

In a match against a side which has its attack and speed as its most notable strengths, the Azkal’s Cardiff Bluebird rose highly to the occasion when the defensive line has been breached and it was only him left to tend to and snuff out the adversaries’ attempts.

Although Etheridge may have his saves as his biggest highlights against the Chinese in the Azkals’ 2022 World Cup qualifying fixture in Panaad, it is to note that the sentry have also been a catalyst for his team’s counterattack on at least two occasions with his quickly taken long throws towards the forward line, making him a situational playmaker which was a much welcome additional facet in the Filipinos’ game that night.

Etheridge’s experience, and commendable stint, playing in the English Premier League the past season may have contributed as one of the main ingredients as to why the Azkals were able to go to-to-toe against China, with the Filipino sentry able to come up with several fine saves, against the opposition.

THE AZKALS DEFENDED TO WIN

In contrast to the Syria match that transpired in Panaad, the Philippines approached the match against China by being more mindful on the defensive end as evidenced by the five-man backline on the starting lineup, with Mark Hartmann as the sole striker.

But despite the seemingly cautious and conservative formation employed by coach Goran Milojevic and his staff, the Filipinos showed the necessary impetus on the attack every time they got possession of the ball by taking chances, and half-chances, wisely on a number of occasions with Hartmann, Martin Steuble, Daisuke Sato, and substitute Angel Guirado having moments to either test the Chinese backline or even coming close to converting by testing opposing keeper Yan Junling.

The wing-play also did contribute to some buildups, but their battling approach in both flanks along with the midfield and central defense had been instrumental in several key duels for possession that have contributed to some of those promising counterattacks.

Despite some errant forward passes, which could be expected for a counterattacking approach, the Azkals overall may have executed the gameplay almost to a tee as they set out to frustrate China which the Philippines did, while knocking on the supposed superior side’s door on several occasions in a match that may have gone either way.

ANGEL GUIRADO STILL HAS IT

Former Davao Aguilas forward, Angel Guirado, continued his Azkals renaissance almost pulling off a dream impact sub moment when he tested China with a potent shot on target just a few moments after his introduction in the 78th minute in place of John Patrick Strauss.

The 34-year-old journeyman striker who had stints with several clubs in Europe and Asia, the number of which may have made an entire football squad, may have further cemented his case in the Azkals coaching staff to still be a significant contributor either as a starter or (as presented in this match against powerhouse China), an impact substitute.

Despite the current Chonburi forward’s age, which is already considered advanced in the normally fleeting career shelf-life of a footballer, Angel Guirado continues to show that he still has significant things to offer as he comes closer to the twilight of his Azkals playing days.

AMANI’S RETURN A DEFENSIVE BOOST

Another notable moment in the match against China, homegrown talent Amani Aguinaldo of Malaysian club PKNP saw action in the second half when he replaced injured Justin Baas just a few moments after the hour mark.

His brief involvement proved to be commendable one as he was able to contribute immensely at the back when China were already desperate to carve out a winning goal.

Along with fellow substitute Luke Woodland of Kuala Lumpur FA, who also provided a solid shift in place of also injured Carli De Murga, Aguinaldo’s being back in the thick of things after a recent stop-start spell due to injuries could be a boon for the Azkals’ defensive options ahead of these gruelling and intermittent international football campaigns.

BACK AND FORTH DYNAMICS SHOW PROMISE BIGGER THAN AZKALS’

The 4-2 loss against Syria a month ago may be caused by several factors, one of which could be the tactical side of things. But the recent monumental 0-0 draw at home against China could serve as a template on how the Azkals should approach future World Cup and Asian Cup qualification campaigns.

Despite employing a defensive 5-4-1 formation, the Philippine 11 actually were far more enterprising on the pitch than what the prematch paper showed. Several times, through a disciplined and smart approach in defending and utilizing possession, the Philippines were able to keep at bay and even threaten their supposedly superior Chinese counterparts.

The cardiac nature of that fixture, which greatly belied the goalless stalemate in the end, proved that the match may have gone either way (yes, even in favor of the Azkals who are the David to China’s Goliath). That match just showed the massive potential that this national squad is slowly beginning to unfold, at least in the Asian level of the international football sphere.

The mix of veterans and new young players, including those who are yet -but already set – to join in, gives further assurance that the Philippine National Football Team program is heading to. And with what they have shown and achieved in that mid-October night in Panaad against an Asian giant, it seemed the Azkals have found a bit of their playing identity which they could further consolidate for the immediate match-days.

But there are still a lot of grounds to prove on for the entire Philippine National Football Team programs, especially the youth levels that for the longest time are aching for positive results with the U-22 2019 SEA Games as the most pressing one and something to keep a close eye on with the events transpiring here in the Philippines.

But whatever surface the Azkals may have scratched out of that precious point against World Cup winning head coach Marcelo Lippi and his men on that fateful night in Bacolod in terms of the approach identity to playing, could be something that maybe further explored and, hopefully, applied to and – more importantly – work down to the youth squads.

May that come to pass.

Photo credit: PFF

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