A first half that lacked composure from the Philippine Azkals served to be their own undoing as Syria’s lone goal proved decisive in their joint World Cup 2022 and Asian Cup 2023 qualifying match held last November 19, 2019 at the Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Azkals assistant coach Scott Cooper fielded a side with a few changes from the ones that started in the match against Maldives as Martin Steuble goes back in the defensive end while Angel Guirado and Curt Dizon also made the Starting XI.
The changes prompted Iain Ramsay to deputize as the left-back in place of Daisuke Sato, who is in the substitute’s bench after receiving a knock in the previous match in Male.
In the early moments of the match, Philippines’ defender Alvaro Silva was quickly cautioned with a yellow card after a challenge on Al-Soma as Syria showed signs of fluidity in their passing play.
A sixth minute speculative effort from a counterattack came for the Azkals with forward Angel Guirado firing from a tight angle forcing Syrian keeper Ibrahim Alma to a diving save and awarding the Southeast Asians a corner kick that was easily dealt with.
Just as the Filipinos were able to get their bearings into the match, Cardiff City FC keeper Neil Etheridge was forced to produce a reflex save to deny Osama Omari from a slightly angled position.
In the 20th minute Patrick Reichelt may have thought that he got to the ball in a very promising position to unleash a shot and break the ice for the Azkals, but the linesman promptly flagged for offside.
But Syria are keen to get a better grip of their lead in the qualifying group as they finally broke the deadlock off a cleverly executed set-piece that unleashed Osama Omari who then squared perfectly to an on-rushing Ward Alslamh to tap-in the goal in the 23rd minute.
In the 32nd minute, Kamel Hmeisheh almost produced something special from range for Syria only narrowly going over the bar as Syria continued with their ascendancy in terms of the proceedings as the first half progressed.
For the few moments that followed, the Philippines seemed to have been chasing shadows as the Qasioun Eagles further improved with their crisp passing plays.
The remaining minutes have been tense and nervy for the Azkals, defending for the most part, as Syria were able to maraud into the box almost at will.
In the 41st minute Omari once again proved to be one of the main thorns for the Philippines after unleashing a venomous strike from distance that Etheridge was able to parry away.
In the 43rd minute Syria’s towering striker Omar Al Somah almost made it two-nil, but his effort inside the box just sailed wide of the far post as the Filipinos’ problems continue to pile up near the half-time break.
A rare attacking breakthrough arrived in the second minute of added time as Guirado was fouled for a set-piece opportunity, then another corner-kick, but both plays have been snuffed out by the Syrians as halftime arrived, more to the relief of the Azkals, with the more superior middle-easterners ahead by only a goal.
After the restart, at the 49th minute, Neil Etheridge collided with Al-Soma in an offside play that put a momentary stoppage in the proceedings but the Filipino goalkeeper, who have been on the receiving end of that particular collision, turned out to be okay as play resumed.
In the 51st minute Stephan Schrock produced a powerful low drive from 30-yards out but Syria’s Alma was able to gather the attempt.
A well crafted play in the 54th minute for the Azkals had Curt Dizon laying off a well-weighted pass towards Guirado who had only Alma to beat but his effort rolled just agonizingly wide of the right post.
Two minutes later, Syria were awarded a freekick in a very dangerous position for the Azkals but Al-Soma’s attempt for the spectacular just narrowly missed the target.
Mark Hartmann’s introduction proved to be the first change for the Philippines as he replaced Angel Guirado in the 58th minute of the match in a bid to provide a different dimension in attack.
As the hour mark came, the Philippines had already produced a much improved showing compared to the whole of the first half.
In the 63rd minute, a last gasp intervention by the Filipino back-line denied Syria a chance for an attempt inside the box and avoid a sure dangerous situation.
Seven minutes into the hour mark, Mike Ott replaced Curt Dizon to provide fresher legs in attack, just as the Filipinos are finally getting some better spells in possession and attacking plays.
In the 70th minute, Syria injected their first change with highly rated Omar Kharbin replacing Omari.
A minute later, Azkals captain Stephan Schröck tried to pull off a curled effort but Alma was able to deal with the attempt easily as another heroic move from the Syrian keeper immediately followed, denying Mark Hartmann’s well-struck effort inside the box off a service from Mike Ott.
Moments before heading into the 80th minute, the Azkals were able to come up with some promising forays into the Syrians’ half as the search for an equalizer ensued.
Five minutes before the 90th minute mark, Neil Etheridge pulled off another set of heroics outside his box to deny Syria a chance to increase their lead.
Even though the Azkals kept pushing forth for a leveller, it was actually Syria who got the gilt-edged chance as Almawas’ curler just missed its intended target with Etheridge seemingly caught in a not so good position to defend.
Despite a tense four minutes of added time, the middle-easterners held on to their slim advantage with Alma producing another last minute denial this time of Mike Ott.
An end-to-end action ensued with Al-Soma missing a sitter to erase all doubts but the Syrians eventually got the win, just barely to maintain their place in the driver’s seat of Group A with a perfect 15 points out of five matches.
The Azkals meanwhile remain at third in the standings with 7 points behind China (who now have a game in hand) just on goal difference.
A lengthy break in qualifying fixtures immediately follows for the Philippines’ senior side as the next match is set late in the first quarter of next year, specifically in March 26, 2020 with Guam visiting for the return leg.
Photo credit: Asian Football Confedration