FOR a moment, I thought Neil Etheridge would make a repeat of that miracle in Laos when needing a last-minute goal, he took on the free kick just beyond half court, connected with James Younghusband who scored the equalizer against Laos, 2-2. That draw and the subsequent scoreless draw against Cambodia allowed the Philippines to advance to the AFF Suzuki Cup in Vietnam, where they would go on a breakthrough that continues this day.
It was a frustrating moment with the Azkals getting three clear shots in the first half against Nepal; free headers by Carli de Murga and one golden chance by Mike Ott. A shot got deflected and the ball found itself to Mike Ott, who was all alone and in front of the goal. Hindsight is always 20-20 and I’m sure Ott is beating himself senseless over that miss but his weak effort resulted to a lot of heads getting hit by palms all over the country.
Then in the second half, just as we all thought we would finally break down the team we beat 4-1 in the first round, we were backpedaling and the Nepalese—ranked 176 to our 116—suddenly played as like they had a shot at the qualifiers and not as a team that was already eliminated.
We had our chances, lots of them and none more agonizingly close than that in stoppage time. Sensing the urgency to score, Neil took the free kick and threw every one else in the Nepalese box. Like in Laos, Neil connected but this time, it hit the wood work, not the net.
How big a celebration that must have been had that goal went in. I think it might have been the the most important goal in Philippine football history.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Not yet, I can confidently say.
Had we won, one of the two spots for Group F would have been ours with a game to spare. At 10 points, we couldn’t have finished lower than second but now, that “game to spare” has become the most important game in our history.
Tajikistan and Yemen also drew, 0-0, and with both at seven points and the Philippines at 9, three teams still have a shot at the two spots. We host Tajikistan in Bacolod on March 27, while Yemen hosts Nepal.
I can crunch numbers here and point all the possible scenarios in the final match but I won’t do that. There’s only one scenario we all should be aiming for. Beat Tajikistan and advance to the AFC Cup for the first time in history.