HALF of the time, football for Filipino fans is all about staying up late. And stay up late we did in the wee hours last Wednesday to watch the Philippine Azkals clash with gritty hosts Maldives for the remaining finals slot in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup.
And what a semifinal match it was.
In what could be the most exciting, most nerve-wracking match the team has have ever played, the Azkals emerged the winners, 3-2, in hostile territory. The team, under coach Thomas Dooley, made history by advancing to the finals of the prestigious Challenge Cup for the first time.
Later at midnight, the Azkals will go up against Palestine in the final. The winner will not only be declared champions, they will qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
Sleep is not an option for Filipino football fans who cannot dare to miss tonight’s match. Consider that Palestine could prove a tougher opponent than the Maldives: it breezed through the group stage, racking up two wins and a draw to top Group A, before disposing of Afghanistan 2-0 with ease in the first semifinal.
In their previous matches, the Azkals had the better of Palestine, having won 4-3 in the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup in the battle for third. Before that, the two played to a scoreless draw in the qualification stage in 2011.
This final, though, means more than just revenge for Palestine. Being hailed champions and making their country proud is motivation enough.
The Azkals, therefore, can expect a high-pressure game that could be as bruising as the last one, where if not for the heroics of goalkeeper Roland Muller and timely goals that were fought for tooth and nail, we’d be talking about a completely different match up today.
Dooley must be losing sleep figuring out how to tighten the Azkals defense, whose weaknesses the Maldives exposed, especially the flanks. The back four, at times slow
to reorganize during counters, must rush to defend at the speed of thought.
On offense, the dozen chances in the last game, a number of them Patrick Reichelt headers, might look impressive, but in the end the only figures that matter are those in the score line.
Still, if they continue playing their composed passing game but with a quicker, more compact back four and sharper accuracy up front, it won’t be hard for us sleep-deprived fans to witness the Azkals lifting the 2014 AFC Champions League trophy.
For now that thought should be enough to keep us awake.