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

Azkals’ Neil Etheridge back in PH, shares valuable Premier League experiences

Cardiff City FC’s Filipino goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is in the country for a three-week vacation. But he made time for the media in order to impart some of his experiences in the recently concluded Premier League season and his plans with regards to the Azkals and what’s next for him with Cardiff City.

During the roundtable, he shared his personal views regarding Cardiff City FC’s Premier League campaign and how the season unfolded.

Despite his club eventually being relegated down to the Championship after the 2018-19 campaign, the Filipino shot-stopper was able to come up with a commendable performance all-season long, notching 10 clean sheets with 141 total saves and three penalty saves (two of which were in his Premier League debut).

“At the end of the day, it’s a team sport… You win together, you lose together,” Etheridge shared to the media focusing more on the team rather than dwelling on his personal achievements and milestones.

“Ultimately, at the end of the season, we fell short by two points and were unable to stay in the (Premier) League,” added Neil.

STILL A BLUEBIRD

It is to note though that given the Azkals sentinel’s commendable efforts and good overall form in manning the posts for The Bluebirds, despite the drop to the Championship for next season, speculations started to hover regarding Neil in terms of a possible return to the top flight via a transfer to a Premier League club, with West Ham as one of the first of such to be rumoured as having an interest.

However, amidst such rumours, Cardiff City’s current first choice sentry made it clear that, at this very moment, he is still with the Welsh club.

“At the end of the day, I (still) got two years left in my contract with Cardiff (City) and the future is out of my hands,” Etheridge shared.

CONTINUING WITH THE AZKALS

Neil Etheridge also touched on his current situation with the Azkals declaring that he wants to be in the squad, particularly in the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers in September this year.

He also emphasised that he has been with the Philippine National Team for 11 years, starting when he was just 18-years-old, and with such a length of involvement, he doesn’t want to just drop all those just for the sake of concentrating on his club career.

“I want to continue being a part of the Azkals. I feel like I have a lot more to give,” said Neil.

A SUCCESSFUL TESTAMENT OF WILL AND FORTITUDE

It has been known that Neil’s path to the current level he is in right now as a highly regarded goalkeeper has not been easy.

A promising career early on experienced challenges along the way. However, his persistence and focus eventually put him back at an upward trajectory towards the highest level of competition possible in England – the Premier League.

Such success story make him an example for many. Hence, when asked for advise and message of encouragement in conquering obstacles, especially to people who look up to him as an inspiration here’s what the now larger-than-life Azkal has to say:

“First of all thank you to everyone who supported me. It has been a long journey to get to where I am. It hasn’t been easy. It was a roller-coaster ride. But, ultimately, I think I have the ability to get to where I am. Challenges aren’t just on the field, but off the field too.”

“I’m talking to everyone who’s doing their own job (but are) finding it hard, to look always for the positives, always try to find the light at the end of the tunnel because there’s always one and I hope they find it one day.”

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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 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

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Azkals in overseas clubs: 1st weekend of February 2019 fixtures

With club football starting to be back [with the exception of the Premier League] for several countries as the winter break comes to a close while the football season slowly begins in Asia, here is the list of games this weekend in different leagues where several Philippine Azkals are playing.

Note: All kick-off times are in Philippine Standard Time [GMT +8]

Azkals clash in Malaysia Super League: Patrick Reichelt [Winger/Forward, Melaka United] vs Joshua Grommen [Defender, Petaling Jaya City FC]

Melaka United begin their Super League season at home against Petaling Jaya City on February 2, 2019. Kickoff time is at 9:00 PM.

Neil Etheridge [Goalkeeper, Cardiff City FC; Premier League]

Away fixture vs Bournemouth on Sunday, February 3, 2019. Kickoff time is at 1:30 AM.

Daisuke Sato [Defender, Sepsi OSK; Romanian Liga I]

Away fixture vs Voluntari on Sunday, February 3, 2019. Kickoff time is 11:30 PM.

John-Patrick Strauß [Midfielder, FC Erzgebirge Aue; 2. Bundesliga]

Home fixture vs FC Köln on Sunday, February 3, 2019. Kickoff Time is 8:30 PM.

Photo credits: Rudolf Holland, FC Erzgebirge Aue, Melaka United SA, Daisuke Sato, Neil Etheridge

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On Neil Etheridge’s massive Premier League performance for Cardiff City against Leicester

Last night, Philippine time, Cardiff City secured their first win away from home as they pulled off a 1-0 result against Leicester.

The winner came in the form of a spectacular late strike by Victor Camarasa in the 92nd minute.

It may be the winning goal that might have gotten most of the attention due to it’s ‘magical’ nature, but from the defensive end, another talking point of the match has been Philippine Azkals keeper, Neil Etheridge who produced another penalty save in the 75th minute to deny the hosts a possible winner.

With another stellar shift for the Philippines’ colossus between the posts, let’s do a brief crunch on Neil’s current performance a match after the halfway of the season.

The obvious: Three penalty saves after 20 matches

After 20 matches, Neil Etheridge produced 3 saves out of five penalties that he has encountered.

Such hat-trick of saves from the spot currently make him top that particular statistic in the Premier League and is the most obvious attribute that makes him create waves in footballing circles around the world.

But actually, Neil’s other current statistics from a goalkeeping standpoint speak more volumes than just that.

Let’s delve a bit more into the numbers.

Neil Etheridge has the most saves in the Premier League

According to the current Premier League statistics, Etheridge now has the most number of the saves pulled off with 78.

What makes this even more interesting is that he has been one of the busiest of sentries in the league. Those saves he has made were out of the 116 shots he has encountered in the course of the currently on-going season. Out of those, he conceded 38 goals making him second as well in that department.

But despite the number of attempts that were able to beat Neil, in comparison to the ones he was able to deal with, that puts him in a success rate of 67.2%, which is still a pretty decent number as compared to the threats he has had to deal with.

The not so obvious: Neil Etheridge tops The Bluebirds in passing

What’s more interesting here is the Filipino stopper is in the thick of things for Cardiff not just in manning the posts, but also in being involved with ball-movement.

With Cardiff’s penchant for long-balls in their offensive buildup, most of such plays start with Neil. Add to that the number of saves that he pulled off and the ensuing goal-kick, plus the fact that Cardiff usually end up with the lower percentage of possession in most of their matches, it’s no wonder Neil tops this figure.

It’s fair to say that Etheridge is a crucial part of the squad especially now that Cardiff still have a long way to go with regards to their battle towards evading relegation (they are only four points above the drop-zone).

From an Azkals and Asian Cup perspective, what do these mean?

Obviously, these statistics point out that The Philippine Azkals are going to miss a top-quality player in their ranks as they participate in the biggest tournament they’ve qualified to in their history.

But in the end, it seems that not suiting up for the national team is the best option to take as Neil finally focuses on his club duties with the stellar performance against Leicester probably a proof already that foregoing his participation in the Asian Cup is the best decision to take.

For sure, Neil will still be available to suit up for the Philippines, and that is for a much higher purpose: The 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

From a club career perspective, does this open up opportunities for Neil?

Absolutely. But, whatever the future brings for the currently in-form stopper, it is most probably that any plans for a move away from Cardiff will not be initiated by Neil himself given that the club gave him the career-breakthrough for him to really showcase his goalkeeping ability and fulfil his potential at the highest level.

Photo credit: Neil Etheridge Twitter account

Azkals in Europe: Neil Etheridge stood out for Cardiff City in draw with Crystal Palace

Neil Etheridge pulled off another fine performance with a clean sheet for Cardiff City FC in a goalless away draw against Crystal Palace last December 26 to keep themselves out of the relegation zone.

In the course of the match, the Philippines’ sentry produced two highlight saves out of a total of five, one on the 15th minute when he denied Luka Milivojevic’s attempt and another more crucial stop in the 81st, denying Wilfried Zaha to keep the stalemate and add a precious point in the standings after the Boxing Day clash.

The result puts Cardiff City at 15 points in the Premier League table after Matchweek 19 – three points and one place above the drop zone at 17th place.

As for Neil Etheridge’s contributions, his exploits between the posts for the particular fixture earned recognition, particularly in Fantasy Football circles.

 

Cardiff City’s next fixture will be against currently in-form Leicester City on December 29, 2018 at 11:00PM HKT.

Photo credit: Neil Etheridge Twitter account