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WCQ2022: Shaky first half by Azkals gave Syria 1-0 edge

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

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FIFA WCQ: Ramsay, Strauss score as Azkals snatch crucial win VS Maldives

Despite a costly missed penalty-kick in the first half, the Philippine Azkals produced a spirited second half display as Iain Ramsay and John-Patrick Strauss convert their chances en-route to an important 2-1 win against Maldives in a joint World Cup 2022 and Asian Cup 2023 qualifying fixture held in Male last Thursday, November 14, 2019.

Coming from a performance full of positives against China, The Azkals management opted to stick to virtually the same set of starters from that match with Luke Woodland the only change in place of Martin Steuble, who was suspended due to accumulation of yellow cards, on defense.

The match began with hosts Maldives trying to employ a more attacking approach by dominating possession while the visiting Philippine side were more cautious.

With the Maldivians’ positive start, a corner kick was produced in the 13th minute after a shot from Hamza Mohamed was deflected out of bounds by an Azkal player. The ensuing play did not produce a breakthrough though but the early dynamics of the game tipped more in favor of the hosts as they were able to come up with some clever combination plays.

In the 23rd minute Patrick Strauss received an elbow from Akram Abdul Gani during an aerial challenge that wounded the Azkal that put a brief pause in the proceedings as the Erzgebirge Aue midfielder received treatment.

Momentarily down to ten men, Maldives tried to take advantage as they crafted a couple of aerial long balls into the Philippines’ own box but the Azkals were able to scramble and defend their lines barely.

A golden opportunity did arrive just at the half-hour mark for Scott Cooper’s men as Patrick Reichelt saw himself in a very good position to shoot with only the keeper to beat but he may have took too much time to get his bearings as his shot was desperately cleared by a defender just in time.

The ensuing corner kick though produced a fortunate turn of events in favor of the Azkals as a Maldivian handled the ball inside the box for the Philippines to be awarded a penalty kick. But it turned out to be a chance that only came begging as Patrick Reichelt, who stood up to take the spot-kick, was denied the breakthrough.

Despite the denial, the penalty kick proved to be pivotal as the Filipinos began to slowly get a foothold in the match by being able to come up with better plays and forays into the opposition’s half.

After three minutes of added time that saw some sloppy plays from both ends of the pitch, the first half ended in a stalemate, with Reichelt’s missed penalty-kick a few moments after the half-hour mark serving as the most clear-cut chance for an icebreaker.

After the restart the Philippine Azkals tried to turn things around in terms of their approach to the game as they cranked up the urgency a few notches higher with Iain Ramsay firing an attempt inside the box that only sailed wide of the post.

Soon enough, Maldives were able to come up with their own well-crafted offensive response, almost successfully getting the icebreaker, but AZ Alkmaar defender Justin Baas produced an all-important intervention to thwart what could have been a sure-goal for the hosts.

But the goal did arrive in favor of the Azkals, with Iain Ramsay being rewarded for his previous efforts, as the Sukhothai FC winger showed a momentary piece of skill before unleashing a firm shot that beat the keeper to give his side a crucial advantage.

A crucial blow though for the Azkals ensued at the hour mark as a late tackle from a Maldivian player saw Daisuke Sato at the receiving end resulting to a knock to the Muangthong United defensive stalwart.

With Sato not able to proceed at full strength, he was replaced by Curt Dizon, the former Ceres-Negros wingman who now plays for Chonburi FC of Thailand.

In the 67th minute, a free-kick was awarded to the Philippines. Despite the attempt being at a considerable distance, Stephan Schrock produced an on-target effort which was smothered by Maldives’ keeper, Mohamed Faisal.

The Philippines immediately applied relentless pressure, giving Luke Woodland a good chance to score from range, with the hosts unsettled in defense, only to be denied by the bar. A scramble for the ball ensued, with Reichelt’s follow up unsuccessful. However, John Patrick Strauss was at the right place and time to slot in the loose-ball to double the lead in the 69th minute.

Despite the two-goal cushion, the Philippine Azkals were still far from danger as the Maldivians continued to push forward and get themselves into the game as testified by a 78th minute effort that tested Cardiff City FC keeper Neil Etheridge.

It continued to be a compelling match as the clock neared the 90th minute mark as the South Asians never let up with their efforts to come up with a result despite the piling odds against them with time already not on their side.

A late attempt for fightback from Maldives produced a late consolation in the end, but the two-goal cushion proved enough as full-time blew with the scoreboard showing 1-2 in favor of the visitors, setting up the Azkals for an all-important fixture against Syria on Tuesday, November 19, in Dubai.

The result maintains the Philippines’ place in third in Group A of the qualifiers and within arm’s reach of second placed China who face Syria later on the same day.

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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Etheridge leads Azkals 23-man squad for 2022 WCQ match against China

The Philippine Azkals just released their squad list for the upcoming 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifier match against China in Bacolod this October 15.

Confirmed as part of the list is EFL Championship goalkeeper Neil Etheridge of Cardiff City FC who is considered as the most seasoned veteran as of the moment who had a commendable stint in the English Premier League last season.

Stephan Schrock of Ceres-Negros FC, who also featured in the Bundesliga with TSG Hoffenheim and Eintracht Frankfurt, will most likely captain the national team having done so in the most recent matches.

Newcomers in the squad are Niko De Vera of American club Portland Timbers II and Elias Edison Mordal of Norwegian club Brattvag IL.

Meanwhile, newly capped duo Justin Baas of Dutch Eredivisie club AZ Alkmaar and Yrick Gallantes of Scotland’s Gala Fairydean Rovers make their immediate return in Goran Milojević’s list as Jovin Bedic of PFL club Kaya FC Iloilo and Malaysia Super League club Kuala Lumpur FA’s Luke Woodland are back as well after missing the squad in the previous matches against Syria and Guam.

Below is the complete squad list as released by The Philippine Azkals through their social media channels (Source: The Azkals Facebook Page)

Source: The Azkals

The Philippine Azkals will host China in Panaad Park and Stadium on October 15, 2019 for the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifiers. Kickoff is at 8PM and will be broadcasted or streamed live at ESPN5’s 5Plus channel.

Photo credit: The Azkals

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2020 FIFA WCQ: Why Syria is a major threat for Azkals

The 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign of the Philippine Azkals is about to begin as they face Syria at home in Bacolod on September 5, 2019.

However, the assignment facing coach Scott Cooper’s men is a tricky and dangerous one as although Syria will be heading as visitors into the crucial fixture, bringing a recent run of unfavorable results, the squad also known as The Eagles of Qasioun (which denotes the mountain near Damascus) are still a formidable squad for the Filipino team that is just beginning to hit its stride in the international football scene.

In the three times that Syria and the Philippines have faced each other (once in 1984 and twice in 2001), the Western Asians were the ones who ended up victorious.

Here are a few points, both good and bad, in relation to the Philippine Azkals regarding the dangerous Syrian national team.

The Good (What the Azkals can exploit)

Syria, with its current political issues as a nation, has affected the national team in terms of maintaining its previously lofty status as a footballing force in Asia.

Due to internal conflicts at home, Syria – for almost a decade now – played all of its designated “home” matches in neutral overseas venues.

The lack of a home-base eventually took its toll on the team in both preparation and results as The Eagles were only able to muster two wins in the year 2019 (in March 23 and July 8 respectively).

To further emphasize Syria’s downturn in terms of form, it wasn’t able to register a win in its most recent campaign which is the 2019 West Asian Football Federation Championship finishing with two draws and two losses putting the team in last place in Group A.

Leaky defense, in several instances, and a frontline that lacks firepower were the main issues that the Syrian side has had that has contributed to such unfavorable conclusions.

Syria’s recent, historically uncharacteristically poor form, is something that the Philippine Azkals could take note of and exploit, but these are just very minor points as we move to the threats and strengths that Syria possesses.

The Bad (What the Azkals should be wary of)

Although Syria is currently in the midst of a seemingly lackluster state in international football as already mentioned above, there are several points as to why this team is still very much a formidable force and most possibly a daunting task for the Philippine team to face in its bid to kickstart its World Cup qualification campaign on a high.

First and foremost, the most obvious, is the ranking of both squads. Syria is currently 87th (as of this writing) in the FIFA Ranking. The Philippines, meanwhile, sits further down at 126th. In the Football Elo ratings (which is a more realistic system in this writer’s opinion), Syria stands at 96th with the Azkals at 174th. Such a discrepancy, even on paper, puts the Azkals as underdogs.

Second, even if Syria is experiencing a low point (relative to its usual footballing standards) with its dismal run of results, it is important to consider that they are situated in West Asia, which is a very strong and competitive region in the Asian Football Confederation where several continental powerhouses (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) and dark horses (Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, UAE) are included. Such a dip in form and performance (due to understandable factors that the likes of Syria is experiencing) are punished severely results-wise.

Third, with their dismal run hounding them, Syria is motivated to overturn such a streak and head coach Fajr Ibrahim’s men are preparing well for the match against the Philippines in order to seize a monumental away win and turn their fortunes for the better in the best possible situation which is the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Such are just some of the reasons why Syria should not be take lightly and all the more that the Azkals should be wary and on-guard against this team.

Syria’s possible key players

FIRAS AL-KHATIB (Forward)

Despite being already 36-years of age, Al-Khatib is still a very much effective scorer both for club (Al-Salmiya) and country.

Such ability to put the ball into the back of the net front has been proven once again in the 2019 West Asian Championship when he top-scored as captain of his team with two goals.

With a rate of almost a goal in every other match (0.48), Al-Khatib is still very much a major threat if he will suit up and set foot on the pitch in Panaad on September 5.

AHMAD AL SALIH (Defender)

29-year-old center-back Ahmad Al Salih is one of the most capped players for Syria and will most likely to be in the squad against the Philippines.

A player with extensive experience in club football both domestically and abroad, Al Sahli will most likely be a key figure as one of the most dominant enforcers in the backline.

Aside from being primarily a defender, Al Sahli has the occasional penchant to score goals (mainly in set-plays) when needed.

OMAR KHARBIN (Forward)

Despite not featuring for the Western Asian Championships, Omar Kharbin might feature for Syria against the Azkals as the world cup qualifier match falls within the international break.

A player for Saudi club side Al-Hilal, but currently plays for Egyptian side Pyramids on loan, Kharbin is one of the in-form players for The Eagles of Qasioun.

Him being one of the only two players to find the back of the net in the 2019 Asian Cup proves his ability to deliver on the big stage.

OMAR AL SOMAH (Forward)

Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli’s towering striker (at 1.93 meters), Al Somah has been a prolific scorer in club football, but has yet to translate that for Syria.

If called up in the match against The Azkals, the 30-year-old’s size and ever-present threat to light it up as a target-man could pose a real problem for the Philippines.

Philippines’ key strengths

Without getting into details, here are some factors that could play in favor of the Philippine Azkals:

HOME PITCH

Philippine weather has its quirks and could play in favor of The Azkals. The home support would be very much play a factor as well.

IN-FORM INDIVIDUALS

The Azkals currently have some key players of their own especially ones that are performing well both in the domestic league and leagues abroad.

If Scott Cooper’s men can build good chemistry within, then it’s possible that they can produce an unprecedented upset against the much higher-ranked Syria.

At this point, it might be considered that Syria might be a shadow of its former self in the football world, but it cannot be denied that the West Asians have a much better track record than the Azkals.

But if the Philippine Azkals will be able to execute well come kick-off and maximize the advantages they have at home, then it is very much possible for The Azkals to get dream start to the World Cup qualifiers.

The September 5, 2019 World Cup qualifier match between the Philippine Azkals and Syria kicks off at 7:30PM in Panaad Stadium.

Photo credits: Syrian FA Facebook page

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Azkals’ long road to Qatar World Cup 2022 qualification set

The Philippine National Football team is set to face powerhouse teams Syria and China as its initial path to World Cup qualification has finally been determined after the draw for the second round of the Asian Football Confederation [AFC] qualifiers has been concluded this Wednesday, July 17, at the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Drawn in Group A with Maldives and Guam along with the aforementioned Asian footballing giants, the Philippines first phase of the journey to the pinnacle of international football competition which will be held in Qatar has been laid out. It will also serve as the springboard for the Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers which will be held in China.

Meanwhile it is an important footnote that Group G turned out to be an ASEAN ‘Group of Death’ with the regions powerhouses such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia finding themselves altogether with continental powerhouse UAE as the only outsider.

The first match of Group A is set to begin on September 5, 2019.

Photo credit: PFF