by Ryan Fenix, special to InterAksyon.com
The Philippines are in the final of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup after a pulsating 3-2 victory over host Maldives.
The Azkals twice took the lead through goals from Phil Younghusband and Jerry Lucena, but a spirited Maldives side twice equalized to set up extra time.
Second half substitute Chris Greatwich capped a brilliant performance by scoring the winning goal in the 105th minute to send the Filipino nation in raptures and into the finals of the Challenge Cup for the very first time against Palestine.
Here are five things we learned from the game.
1. Chris Greatwich is the Azkals hero once again
Before playing in a crucial UFL match recently, the ever humble Chris Greatwich came over to this writer and asked, “You know what happens in big games?”
He answered his own question: “I score.”
There was no bigger game for the Philippines than the semifinal of the Challenge Cup against hosts Maldives.
With the scores pegged at 2-2 and with both teams looking at penalties to decide the game, many time Azkals hero Chris Greatwich was true to his word, arriving at the right place at the right time to bang in the winning goal for the Philippines.
Greatwich enhanced his legendary status among the Azkals faithful with his goal, but his contribution to the game was immense as he did a superb job as a ball winner in a central midfield role.
Cometh the Azkals’ hour of need, cometh “Big Game” Chris Greatwich.
2. Super Roland Mueller saves the day
On a day when the Azkals central defence looked shaky and far from assured, Super Roland Mueller once again delivered a fantastic performance between the posts as he saved a Maldives penalty in the 53rd minute to go along with fantastic saves that kept the Azkals in the match.
Amani Aguinaldo showed his inexperience and was skinned alive time and time again by Maldives talisman Ali Ashfaq but were bailed out by an inspired Muller.
As the Azkals were beginning to tire and become more vulnerable to counter-attacks, Muller was in fine form once again, as he thwarted Maldivian threats from quick counters.
The Azkals failed to keep a clean sheet for the first time in the tournament, but things could have been worse if not for the efforts of Super Roland in goal.
3. Phil Younghusband delivers when needed most
There were gasps of concern when Stephan Schrock was deemed unfit to make the starting eleven, but Phil Younghusband’s outstanding performance ensured that there would be no let-off in the attacking third for the Azkals.
Combining well with Patrick Reichelt, Phil threatened the Maldives defense time and again, and was rewarded with a superb individual 18th minute goal.
Deployed as a striker, Phil played the role with aplomb as held up the ball when needed, linked well with the midfield, and was unlucky not to add to his 36 international goals.
Phil looks to have shrugged off his recent injury woes and has looked sharp and lively up front, which bodes well for the Azkals going to the final against Palestine.
4. Daisuke Sato is blossoming in front of our eyes
No Dennis Cagara, no problem.
Sato-San is here.
All the pre-match hype was about the Maldives’ “Man of Steel” Ali Ashfaq, and the Maldives captain duly showed why he was rated as one of the top 10 Asian players in 2012 with a scintillating performance in front of his adoring home crowd.
Running the Azkals defense ragged for 120 minutes, his speed and runs were a constant threat to the Philippines.
However in many occasions, the young Daisuke Sato was up to the task not just in nullifying the threat of the Maldives, but in offering options going forward.
Sato defines the role a of a true rampaging fullback, launching into a sensational last ditch tackle on Ashfaq on one end and venturing into the Azkals attacking third in another.
He showed toughness as well, not backing down from any of the Maldives shenanigans late in the game. The future is bright for this man.
5. Azkals defensive frailties could be a concern
The Azkals showed tremendous character and heart in the win against the Maldives. The Azkals twice took the lead, but saw the Maldives come back twice to level the scores.
The Azkals found themselves in the back foot in the latter stages of the game and were extremely fortunate not to concede as the Maldives piled on the pressure late in the game.
All tournament long, the Azkals have looked uncomfortable with balls being played to speedy forwards who have space to run into. This is especially true when our defense plays a high line.
Balls played into space behind our defenders — for the likes of Ali Ashfaq to run into – have been the Achilles heel of the team.
Speed has never been the strength of an Aguinaldo-Gier partnership, and our back four will have to be wary of the threat posed by Palestine. Every time an opposing team breaks in a counter attack, anxiety levels of Azkals fans rise up a notch.
Through it all, the Azkals faced – and passed — a tremendous test of character against the Maldives, hostile crowd and all.
It might be a stretch to call our defense “suspect”; after all, the Azkals have only conceded two goals in the last four games. Palestine coaches who were watching in the stands however, will have taken notice of this potential weakness.
The players will have three days to recover from a gruelling 120 minutes of play.
Coach Dooley will have three days to sort out our tactics – Schrock’s fitness will be one of his concerns – but he would have been encouraged to note that all the players that he has called on have delivered for the most part.
The Azkals – OUR Azkals — are on the brink of greatness.
We’re in the final!