Azkals vs. Malay Tigers, February 29, 2012

February 29, 2012 at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila, Philippines, for the Azkals’ first official International Friendly Game of the year: The Malay Tigers draw with the Azkals, 1-1.

Starting XI: Goalkeeper – Neil Etheridge; Defenders – Luis Guirado, Jason Sabio, Ray Jonsson, Carli De Murga; Midfielders – Jason De Jong, James Younghusband, Lexton Moy, Angel Guirado; Forwards – Phil Younghusband, Denis Wolf

Substitutes: Roel Gener, Misagh Bahadoran, Marwin Angeles, Ian Araneta.

Very good attendance, ticket sales were at limited 3-4 days before the match. Crowd was very noisy most of the time, and it looked like the Rizal Memorial Stadium filled to about 95% of its capacity, only very few empty spaces in the stands. However, other bloggers and news item put the crowd at only 8,000 maximum, or about 61% of the Stadium’s 13,000 capacity.

‘First Half Summary’
I am not so impressed with the Malay Tigers this first half. Their vaunted short passing game which their Coach said will the the showcase of their game had not been able to consistently help them move forward and launch those attacks. In contrast, the Philippines, who have been using ACCURATE long balls have had more threats in the Malaysian side of the box. We had TONS of opportunity, so much so that when Wolf finally scored off a header in the 34th minute from Sabio’s throw in was more of a relief that they finally scored one after all those attempts.

Angel Guirado and Denis Wolf continue to be ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC on offense in the flanks. The highly ranked U23 Uzbekhs couldn’t stop them, and obviously neither could this Malaysian team. Both continue their excellent play, and are the engines of our offense. I can’t say enough good things about those two guys, their skill level in maintaining that ball during attacks is just WAY above the South East Asian level right now.

The Tigers couldn’t break our defense, they had very few good scoring opportunities as their attacks into our side of the pitch were effectively broken down time again by interceptions or blocks. Jason Sabio again blocked some shots, as did Carli De Murga.

I am SO DAMN PROUD of this Azkals team in the first half. We clearly not only achieved parity with the South East Asian Champion, we even DOMINATED them, at least in this half. I am sure the Malaysians watching this game were in pins and needles by the way we assaulted their side of the pitch.

‘Second Half Summary’
By the second half, the Malay Tigers abandoned their ground game and started playing the long ball also, and this resulted in some very good scoring opportunities for them. In contrast to his largely inactive first half, Neil was very busy in the second half, making some fantastic jumping saves, keeping those goals out as only a Fulham-level Goalkeeper like him can.

Our Azkals backline were definitely challenged in the second half, and managed to hold the Tigers off until the very last part of the game when the Tigers were able to equalize in injury time. The Azkals were probably tired, and starting to level off mentally when the Tigers pounced on that goal.

Because the Tigers were committing a lot of people on offense, they were also quite vulnerable on defense, and the Azkals also had a lot of opportunities to put the game away, literally galivanting inside Tiger’s box on numerous occassions, but just couldn’t find that final ball. Lexton Moy had a great second half, dispossessing players, intercepting passes, and making good passes to feed the Azkals offense. We actually dominated that game offensively in the second half, getting a lot more good attempts on offense than the Tigers.

That stint in the Middle East definitely helped the team play better when playing against lower ranking teams. These Tigers are nowhere near the level of the U23 Uzbekhs or U23 Olyroos, so the Azkals played more comfortably and with more quality against these Tigers.

‘Final Thoughts’
I am disappointed with the results. We should’ve scored another goal in the second half and put the game away, but we didn’t. The game showed the Azkals’ lack of depth. When Phil, Angel and Denis sits down, there aren’t any player out there on the bench who can maintain the team’s quality at that high a level.

Misagh isn’t at that level yet, and I am beginning to wonder if he will reach that level. He is a one-sided player, he always moves only on one side, his strong side which is his right. That tends to limit his effectiveness a lot because of his predictability. And Ian definitely is nowhere near that level.

The Tigers, on the other hand, had a great sub, I think that guy who scored the equalizer is one of their upcoming players.

The game also showed our team’s lack of finishing quality, which has been a perennial problem for the Azkals. This will definitely be a problem for us in the Challenge Cup, where we are up against much stronger teams, and thus will not be able to have as much attempts against them and therefore much less chances to score and win.

My Man of the Match: Definitely “The Wolf”, for his unstoppable attacks, and that lone goal. Honorable Mentions:
– Neil Etheridge, for those fantastic saves, that would’ve otherwise been goals. His night would’ve been complete, were it not for that goal that got past him;
– Angel Guirado, also because of his unstoppable attacks, but just couldn’t score that goal;
– Jason Sabio, for making some crucial last minute saves, and for those “Throw-In Crosses” of his, one of which resulted in a goal. Just too bad he got outfoxed for that injury time goal.

At the end of the game, Coach Rajagopal was starting to make excuses for his team’s poor performance against us. In the interview with Ronnie Nathanielsz, first he clearly made a dig at the Azkals’ Fil-Foreigners by calling them “foreign players”. Then he proceeded to blame the poor state of the RMS pitch. I think its hogwash, but I hope we do get artificial turf on our major football fields like the RMS so we can keep it from being used as a scapegoat, and shut our opponents up.

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