The Philippines Azkals’ bid for Asian Cup football got off to a flying start as they emerged as winners, 4-1, against Nepal in the Group H clash of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, held Tuesday evening at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Right from the start, the Azkals were on the front foot, as they showed their eagerness to score an early goal.
The first chance for the Philippines to take the lead came 12 minutes into the game. Javi Patiño saw his header palmed away off the line by defender Bikram Lama, who was given marching orders for the deliberate handball.
Despite warranting a sending off, the Nepal defender may have felt vindicated when his teammate with the gloves, Kiran Kumar Limbu, parried away Phil Younghusband’s take from 12 yards.
The captain sought to make amends instantly, but had to wait for eight minutes to do so. Sustaining momentum and playing with a man advantage, the Azkals claimed another penalty after a brilliant pass from Patiño located Mike Ott. The 21-year-old midfielder then dashed to meet the ball inside the box and lured Ananta Tamang into making a reckless sliding challenge. For the second time in the game, referee Yaqoob Said Abdullah Abdul Baqi pointed to the spot.
Unlike the 13th minute incident, Phil Younghusband picked the other side to not only send Kiran the wrong way but also give the home team the much-deserved lead. Energized by the home crowd, the Azkals knew they needed more goals their way.
“My dad always told me that when you missed one, it’s important you take the next one because otherwise that would play on your mind until the time you do score. A lot went through my mind. It’s always important to get a goal as soon as possible when you do miss a penalty because then you forget the missed one and I was happy I was able to have another chance,” the Loyola striker shared regarding the penalties.
The conversion truly worked wonders, as just a couple minutes after breaking the deadlock, the captain grabbed his second of the night again with the help of Ott. Proving to be a handful down the right wing, the Nürnberg II player lured Kiran off his line before setting up Younghusband, who clinically converted the ball past a swarm of Nepalese defenders near the goal.
As the proverb ‘strike while the iron is hot’ goes, the Azkals got their third just moments after. Iain Ramsay joined the scorers’ list as he reacted the quickest in a scramble inside the box 27 minutes into the game. The Ceres-Negros midfielder tucked the ball into the far side to make it a 3-0 lead against the visiting Central Asian side.
Even with such an advantage, the Azkals remained committed to putting the ball into the back of the net as much as possible. They continued to get chances to score, but no one in a white shirt could muster a finish worthy of beating the now-more compact Nepal defense
Down the other side of the pitch, the Nepalese men began to move more fluidly as they looked to make an unlikely comeback in the game. Playing better towards the end of the half, the visitors did not go to the locker room disappointed, as substitute Bishal Rai pounced on a rare opportunity to pull one back for Nepal.
It proved to be the last kick of the first half, as the Philippines saw their lead reduced to two entering the second half. Talking after the game, Dooley voiced disappointment over how his team had dealt with the situation.
“That was what I was a little bit upset at halftime. Even if you’re leading 3-0, you have to have urgency on our defense. It’s difficult because even if it’s against 10 men, if they have another counter and score in the second half then it’s 3-2 and everyone would be shaking,” the former USA captain elaborated.
Aware that their foes still had enough time to recover, the Azkals tried to replicate their hot start in the first half as soon as the second period started. In the process, they produced two quick chances from Patiño and Carli de Murga. Both attempts, however, didn’t test the busy Kiran in goal.
Still facing a two-goal deficit, Nepal knew that getting the game’s fifth goal would put some pressure on their Southeast Asian counterparts. With 30 more minutes to play, they nearly halved the Azkals lead through Rohit Chand. The Nepal captain swung a decent hit from around 35 yards, but while it had the spin and the power to beat some goalkeepers in Asia, Neil Etheridge managed to read it and gather the ball safely.
It was the closest the Gorkhalis could come to mounting the unlikely comeback, as Patiño’s sublime finish inside the box restored the Azkals’ three-goal cushion in the 74th minute.
Late heroics in goal from Etheridge preserved the three-goal advantage, which could have been increased by Patiño in second half added time. The Henan Jianye striker only had Kiran to beat, so it was a shame that he lost control of the ball at the most crucial moment, saving the 27-year-old Nepalese keeper’s blushes. 4-1 was the score come full time, signalling a blazing start for Dooley’s wards.
The American coach, overall, expressed satisfaction in getting the job done on the night. “I’m very happy with the three points. That’s what we wanted. I’m very happy that we played the ball nicely. There were some good combinations, but we could do better,” the 55-year-old summed up.
As it stands, the Philippines go on top of the Group H standings with three points and a +3 goal difference to show. Two other teams in the group, Yemen and Tajikistan, will see action later today.
The Azkals will then head to Tajikistan next in match day two of the final round of the 2019 Asian Cup Qualifiers, which will take place on June 13.