Villaflor: The Azkals’ Hunger Games

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Monday, April 28, 2014


MALAYSIAN coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee had an excuse ready for his countrymen who weren’t too pleased with the fourth straight draw between the Tigers and the Azkals: he opted to play his defensive players.

I doubt if the Malaysian public would buy this excuse, considering that only three days before the match, Kim Swee was quoted as saying, “I have retained most of the players from our last assignment... We need a positive result to continue the winning momentum.”

Kim Swee was referring to the Malaysian side that beat Yemen 2-1 in an Asia Cup qualifying match earlier this March, and to say he wanted to keep “the winning momentum” meant he was going for a win at the Cebu City Sports Complex last Sunday.

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Going for a win while playing defensive players? That just doesn’t add up.

The Malaysian coach, though, was gracious enough to acknowledge that the Azkals they battled to a 0-0 draw last Sunday was a much better team than the one they played last March 1. In fact I was a bit disoriented watching the first few minutes of the game: the Azkals imposing their will, attacking early on, how is this even possible?

Like many fans, I’ve been accustomed to watching our players defending for most of the match, hoping that the team scores off the counter. But that defensive-minded approach is history, thanks to the new Azkals coach Thomas Dooley, who brought his free-
flowing, attacking system to the team.

Considering the Azkals didn’t have their “key” players, the way they dominated the Tigers, especially in the first half, was sublime. They controlled the ball well, passing was efficient, and they frustrated the Malaysians with pressure play, fighting for every inch of space, on the ground or in the air. In 50-50 situations, the Azkals consistently won the ball.

Despite creating chance after chance, with menacing attempts from from Ruben Doctora, Patrick Reichelt, and Jason de Jong, Martin Steuble, and Nate Burkey, the Azkals just couldn’t find the back of the net.

And the team nearly paid dearly for it when captain Anton del Rosario was called for a handball and Malaysia was awarded a penalty in injury time. Good thing goalkeeper Patrick Deyto – our man of the match – blocked Safee Sali’s kick and saved the day.

Nil-nil it ended.

Malaysian coach Kim Swee, who seemed exasperated at the questions thrown at him by fellow Malaysians during the post-match interview, attributes the scoreless draw to both team’s “lack of sharpness.” (That meant the Azkals weren’t sharp enough for failing to convert their chances, and Sali, just as dull.)

In contrast, Azkals coach Dooley was still elated with the result. “I’m very, very happy with how the boys played,” he said at the press room shortly after the friendly, which is in preparation for the bigger challenge ahead, the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives from May 20 to 24.

Asked how the result will affect the team’s preparations, Dooley said the Azkals’ impressive performance against a strong opponent will boost their confidence in the run up to the Challenge Cup.

So how confident is Dooley himself of their chances against the likes of Afghanistan, Laos and Turkmenistan in a tournament that will give the winner a slot in the more prestigious 2015 AFC Asian Cup?

“I’m very confident that we will be playing against teams that we can beat,” the Azkals coach said. “But we need to score goals,” Dooley, with his brand of cautious optimism, warned. “The team that wants it most will win.”

Now, the desire to win cannot be taught, but at least the game against Malaysia revealed that the Azkals are seriously hungry for football glory. And the 0-0 draw? It just stoked that hunger further.

(nsvillaflor@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on April 29, 2014.

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