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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Azkals overseas: March 2019 weekend 1 fixtures

A new month is upon us. Here are the fixtures of Philippine internationals who are playing in overseas leagues this weekend.

Note: All schedules are in Philippine Standard Time

Neil Etheridge, GK – Cardiff City FC [Premier League]

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Cardiff City FC: March 2, Saturday at 11:00PM

Daisuke Sato, DF – Sepsi OSK [Romanian Liga I Playoff]

CFR Cluj vs Sepsi OSK: March 4, Monday at 2:00AM

John Patrick Strauss, MF – Erzgebirge Aue [2. Bundesliga]

SV Sandhausen vs Erzgebirge Aue: March 2, Saturday at 8:00PM

Kevin Ray Mendoza, GK – AC Horsens [Danish Superliga]

Esbjerg vs AC Horsens – March 3, Sunday at 1:00AM

Jordan Jarvis, DF – Eastern [Hong Kong Premier League]

Sun Pegasus vs Eastern – March 2, Saturday at 8:00PM

Amani Aguinaldo, DF – PKNP [Malaysia Super League]

PKNP vs Pahang – March 2, Saturday at 9:00PM

Joshua Grommen, DF – PJ City FC [Malaysia Super League]

Felda United vs PJ City FC – March 2, Saturday at 9:00PM

Patrick Reichelt, MF – Melaka United vs Luke Woodland, DF – Kuala Lumpur FA [Malaysia Premier League]

Melaka United vs Kuala Lumpur – March 3, Sunday at 9:00PM

Hikaru Minegishi, MF – JL Chiangmai United [Thai League 2]

JL Chiangmai United vs BG Pathum United – March 3, Sunday at 7:00PM

Mark Hartmann, FW – Suphanburi vs Javier Patino, FW & Stephan Palla, DF – Buriram United [Thai League 1]

DONE: Suphanburi 0 – 0 Buriram United – March 1, Friday at 8:00PM

Michael Falkesgaard, GK – Bangkok United [Thai League 1]

Bangkok United vs Muangthong United – March 2, Saturday at 8:00PM

Iain Ramsay, MF – Sukhothai [Thai League 1]

Chiangmai vs Sukhothai – March 2, Saturday at 9:00PM

Marco Casambre, DF & Adam Reed, MF – Chainat Hornbill [Thai League 1]

Trat vs Chainat Hornbill – March 3, Sunday at 7:00PM

Amin Nazari, MF & Manuel Ott, MF – Ratchaburi Mitr Phol [Thai League 1]

Port FC vs Ratchaburi Mitr Phol – March 3, Sunday at 8:00PM

Photo credits: Buriram United Facebook, Suphanburi Facebook, Sukhothai Facebook, Melaka United Facebook, Neil Etheridge Instagram,

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Azkals overseas: February 2019 weekend 4 fixtures

There’s a bit of a shakeup in the Azkals overseas lineup as Amani Aguinaldo and Luke Woodland join PKNP and Kuala Lumpur FA respectively in the Malaysia Super League.

Also, with the Thai League 1 beginning this weekend, it is going to be a pretty busy set of fixtures with the list of matches coming this week [all kickoff schedules are in Philippine Standard Time]:

Neil Etheridge [GK, Cardiff City FC – Premier League]

Cardiff City vs Watford – February 23 [Saturday], 3:45 AM

Daisuke Sato [DF, Sepsi OSK – Romanian Liga I Playoff]

Sepsi OSK vs Viitorul – Feburary 23 [Saturday], 1:00AM

Kevin Ray Mendoza [GK, AC Horsens – Danish Superliga]

AC Horsens vs Odense Boldklub – February 24 [Sunday], 9:00PM

John-Patrick Strauß [MF, FC Erzgebirge Aue – 2. Bundesliga]

Erzgebirge Aue vs FC Duisburg – February 24 [Sunday], 9:30PM

Hikaru Minegishi [MF, JL Chiangmai United – Thai League 2]

Sisaket FC vs JL Chiangmai United – February 23 [Saturday], 9:00PM

MALAYSIA SUPER LEAGUE

Joshua Grommen [DF, PJ City FC]: PJ City FC vs Kedah FA [Home] – February 22 [Friday], 9:00PM

Patrick Reichelt [MF/FW, Melaka United]: Johor Darul Ta’zim vs Melaka United – February 23 [Saturday], 9:00PM

Luke Woodland [DF/MF, Kuala Lumpur FA]: Kuala Lumpur vs Terengganu – February 22 [Friday], 9:00PM

Amani Aguinaldo [DF, PKNP FC]: PKNS vs PKNP – February 23 [Saturday], 9:00PM

THAI LEAGUE 1

Amin Nazari [MF], Manuel Ott [MF] – Ratchaburi Mitr Phol: Ratchaburi Mitr Phol vs Trat FC – February 22 [Friday], 9:00PM

Marco Casambre [DF], Adam Reed [MF] – Chainat Hornbill vs Mark Hartmann [FW, Suphanburi FC]: Chainat Hornbill vs Suphanburi – February 23 [Saturday], 7:45PM

Stephan Palla [DF], Javier Patino [FW] – Buriram United: Buriram United vs Chonburi – February 23 [Saturday], 8:00PM

Iain Ramsay [MF, Sukhothai FC] vs Michael Falkesgaard [GK, Bangkok United]: Sukhothai vs Bangkok United – Feburary 24 [Sunday], 7:00PM

Photo credits: PKNP FC Instagram, Kuala Lumpur FA Instagram

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Azkals in overseas leagues fixtures for February 2019: Weekend 3

It’s the third weekend of February as the Philippine Azkals in Europe, Malaysia and Thai League 2 continue with their respective campaigns.

Here are the schedules for this upcoming matchdays for the week [All schedules are in Philippine Standard Time, GMT +8]:

Hikaru Minegishi [JL Chaingmai United – Thai League 2]

JL Chiangmai vs Khon Kaen [Home] – February 16 [Saturday]. Kickoff: 8:00PM

After opening their league campaign with a 1-0 loss away from home against Udonthani last February 10, JL Chiangmai United with Filipino midfielder Hikaru Minegishi are about to have their first home match against Khon Kaen which also lost their first assignment as both teams try to get their first win of the season.

Joshua Grommen [Petaling Jaya City – Malaysia Super League]

PKNP vs Petaling Jaya City [Away] – February 16, 2019 [Saturday]. Kickoff: 9:00PM

A 1-1 draw against Selangor last February 9, earned Filipino defender Joshua Grommen’s PJ City FC their first point in the standings after two matches.

But the next fixture in their bid to get their first three points could be a challenging one as they are on an away mission against PKNP, which share an identical record of one loss and a draw.

Patrick Reichelt [Melaka United – Malaysia Super League]

Melaka United vs Pahang [Home] – February 16, 2019 [Saturday]. Kickoff at 9:00PM

After getting their second win in as many matches in the Super League from a 1-0 win against hosts PKNS – with Filipino midfielder Patrick Reichelt even getting Man of the Match honors, Melaka United aim to keep their perfect start to the season in their third fixture.

It will be easier said than done though as they host current leaders Pahang who are on a goalscoring spree with six goals scored and only one conceded in just two matches.

Daisuke Sato [Sepsi OSK – Romania Liga I]

Gaz Metan vs Sepsi OSK [Away]- February 17, 2019 [Sunday]. Kickoff 11:30PM

Azkals defender Daisuke Sato’s club Sepsi OSK have had a rough start after the winter break, dropping their previous two fixtures.

Although the results did not affect their standing in the table as they proceed for the championship playoff round, they would need to get a win away against Gaz Metan in the hopes of kicking off their campaign back to winning ways.

John-Patrick Strauss [FC Erzgebirge Aue – 2. Bundesliga]

FC St. Pauli vs Erzgebirge Aue [Away] – February 16, 2019 [Saturday]. Kickoff at 8:00PM

Erzgebirge Aue and Filipino midfielder John-Patrick Strauss hope to get the breakthrough win after getting back to back losses in their return from winter break.

Kevin Ray Mendoza Hansen [AC Horsens – Danish Superliga]

Horsens vs Vendsyssel FF [Home] – February 17, 2019 [Sunday]. Kickoff at 7:00PM.

After getting a point in a goalless away fixture against Hobro, AC Horsens and Azkals goalkeeper Kevin Ray Mendoza host Vendsyssel to get full three points after the winter break.

Photo credits: Sepsi OSK, Melaka United, JL Chiangmai United,

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Azkals overseas fixtures for February 2019: Weekend 2

The Philippine Azkals based overseas are now slowly getting back into the pitch with the commencement of leagues in Asia while those based in Europe have their respective clubs ready to compete once again after the winter break.

Here are their fixtures you may follow this weekend [kickoff times are in Philippine Standard Time or GMT +8]:

Patrick Reichelt [Melaka United – Malaysia Super League]

PKNS FC vs Melaka United [Away] – February 9, 2019 [Saturday]. Kickoff at 9:00PM

After getting a good start with his new club Melaka United via a win at home against Petaling Jaya City FC, Patrick Reichelt and his teammates are aiming to build on the result as they visit PKNS to make it two wins in two matches.

Joshua Grommen [Petaling Jaya City – Malaysia Super League]

Petaling Jaya City vs Selangor [Home] – February 9, 2019 [Saturday]. Kickoff at 9:00PM

Joshua Grommen’s club may have slipped in its first MSL assignment against Melaka United but for their second fixture, they get to face Selangor at their home turf.

Although the Filipino defender received plaudits for his combative efforts by playing through an injury, him suiting up this weekend could still be in doubt as he gets monitored on his fitness after suffering a dislocated shoulder.

UPDATE: According to Rudolf, Joshua Grommen’s father, the player will feature for the squad and will wear a special shoulder brace so he can play.

Neil Etheridge [Cardiff City – Premier League]

Southampton vs Cardiff City FC [Away] – February 9, 2019 [Saturday]. Kickoff at 11:00PM

Cardiff City will build on the win they have achieved against Bournemouth the previous matchday with Azkals keeper Neil Etheridge pulling off some crucial saves. But they’ll be facing Southampton next time as visitors while they try to pull themselves out of the relegation zone.

Daisuke Sato [Sepsi OSK – Romania Liga I]

Sepsi OSK vs Dinamo Bucuresti [Home]- February 10, 2019 [Sunday]. Kickoff 2:00AM

Daisuke Sato’s club Sepsi OSK slipped against Voluntari in their post-winter break opener, but the next fixture will still most possibly be a challenge still as they go up against Dinamo Bucuresti, as the Sfantu Gheorghe-based club will try to keep themselves in the top half of the league and avoid the relegation playout.

Hikaru Minegishi [JL Chiangmai United – Thai League 2]

JL Chiangmai United vs Udon Thani FC [Home] – February 10, 2019 [Sunday]. Kickoff 7:00PM

Hikaru Minegishi will debut for his newly promoted club JL Chiangmai United in Thailand’s League 2, with the optimism of coming up with an excellent campaign in the second-tier.

Kevin Ray Mendoza Hansen [AC Horsens – Danish Superliga]

Hobro vs Horsens [Away] – February 10, 2019 [Sunday]. Kickoff at 7:00PM

Kevin Ray Mendoza will suit up for AC Horsens after the winter break. Let’s see if he will be a starter for the club.

Horsens still have six games left to improve their standing [currently 8th] and qualify for the championship round.

John-Patrick Strauss [FC Erzgebirge Aue – 2. Bundesliga]

Erzgebirge Aue vs Ingolstadt – February 10, 2019 [Sunday]. Kickoff at 8:30PM

John-Patrick Strauss has yet to feature as a starter after decent performances for the Azkals in both the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 and AFC Cup 2019. The club will hope to climb further up the standings as they are currently in the lower half of the table [13th out of 18].

Photo credits: Hikaru Minegishi, Sepsi OSK, Cardiff City FC, Melaka United SA