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Azkals leave Nepal with qualification still hanging in balance

Azkals leave Nepal with qualification still hanging in balance

The Philippine Azkals went to Nepal in search of a win that would seal their place in the tournament proper of the of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. Unfortunately, they were left frustrated after 90 minutes of thrilling football, as they couldn’t break down a sturdy Nepal defense that did well to earn a goalless draw at the ANFA Complex in Kathmandu, Nepal.

It took a while for the Azkals to settle into the game, as the hosts did a good job containing the visiting team within the first 20 minutes. With nothing but pride to play for, Nepal didn’t look like the team currently sitting at the bottom of Group F. They maintained good shape defensively, which prevented the Filipinos from netting an early goal. In fact, the home side looked more dangerous with the ball. Fortunately, Neil Etheridge didn’t need to do much on between the sticks.

Gradually, the Azkals began to find their feet in Nepalese soil. Twenty-one minutes into game, the Philippines registered their first chance. Iain Ramsay located his club teammate Carli de Murga just inside the box. The Ceres defender got his head to the ball, but his effort sailed over the frame of the goal. It did not open the scoring, but it provided a much-needed boost for the Azkals frontline.

Just moments after the first chance, Mike Ott tested his luck from range. While it was off-target, the attempt had Nepal goalkeeper Kiran Chemjong scampering for the ball that just ended a few feet wide off the far post.

More opportunities arrived for the Azkals as the game got going. However, they weren’t able to maximize the quantity of attempts on goal. In the 25th minute, Phil Younghusband scuffed a shot inside the 18-yard box. The Davao Aguilas star man then took a free kick a few minutes later, which was nodded over by his club mate Simone Rota.

Out of all the shots created in the first half, nothing came closer than Ott’s 35th minute effort. Positioned well to slot the ball in off a parried Curt Dizon attempt, the Ang Thong United midfielder didn’t have the best of touches as he rushed the effort with a first time strike. It did not have enough power nor accuracy to bother Kiran Kumar Lumbu, who thankfully collected the ball on the goalmouth.

The hosts regained composure after that, frustrating the Azkals, who were eager to end the half ahead by at least a goal. The first half ended goalless, arguably leaving Nepal as the more satisfied of the two squads.

Unhappy with how the first half turned out, the team in white started the second half with much more intensity. Their aggressive approach pushed the home team deeper into their half. It rewarded them with set pieces but their profligacy did not allow them to capitalize on those opportunities.

With a high line in place, the Azkals were running the risk of getting caught on the break. They nearly gave away a gilt-edged chance approaching the hour mark when Etheridge took too long on the ball and was prompted to concede an unwarranted corner. Thankfully for him, the opportunity led to nothing.

Nepal may have not scored from that moment, but their self-confidence grew afterwards. While they did not create a clear-cut chance, they kept the Azkals’ defense on their toes. De Murga needed to intervene to break up a potential goal-scoring opportunity before Etheridge made a routine save off a long range shot.

The Azkals did not stay on the back foot for too long, creating another chance in pursuit of a breakthrough goal. Rota’s shot was palmed away by Kumar Lumbu, but only as far as the unmarked Younghusband inside the box. He then gladly saw the Philippine record goalscorer’s attempt drift harmlessly wide.

Nepal dodged a bullet right there, but knew that it wouldn’t be the last time they faced danger in the match. In the 70th minute, Ott seemingly had enough time to finish a chance inside the box. Unlike in the first half, however, he opted to take his time with the ball perhaps just long enough for the Nepal defense to recover.

Towards the closing stages of the match, the Azkals were in the ascendancy. They piled the pressure onto the Nepal defense, which looked equipped to deal with it. The barrage even came at a time when Kumar Lumbu had to come off due to a sustained injury. Bikesh Kuthu came on as a competent deputy to the man who had kept Nepal in the affair.

Credit to Nepal, they did not simply sit back and wait for the Azkals to attack. Whenever they got the ball, they tried to cause problems with quick passing in midfield. This nearly paid off when the hosts caught the visitors against the run of play. Junior Muñoz spared the Azkals’ blushes after he blocked a glorious attempt in the 76th minute.

Surviving the abrupt attack, the Azkals resumed their dominant spell and produced two huge chances off a set piece in the 84th minute. From a corner, Daisuke Sato was inches away from giving the Filipinos the lead. His headed effort was creeping in only to be cleared out just before it breached the goal line. A secondary cross was floated back into the Nepal box, but Ott did not find the target with his headed attempt.

Time eventually ran out, but not without a last-gasp opportunity to steal a historic result. In the fourth and last minute of added time, Etheridge drilled a great free kick from the halfway line. De Murga got on the end of it and headed it towards goal and came a tad close, only to be denied by the woodwork. Sato went for the rebound and saw his attempt cleared, but it wouldn’t have counted anyway as he was flagged for offside.

After the ensuing free kick was taken, the referee signaled the end of the match.

The result still keeps the Philippines away from booking a berth in the 2019 Asian Cup. However, they only need to avoid a defeat in the final group game at home against Tajikistan. The said match will take place on the March 27, 2018, at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod.

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