Thursday, March 1, 2012

Late strike helps Malaysia

The Azkals dominated the first half and led 1-0 at the break thanks to Denis Wolf's 34th-minute header on a Jason Sabio long throw. Beaten back in the second half they came under a lot of pressure and failed to prevent Ahmar Shakir Mohd Ali's 91st-minute equalizer in their friendly match  Wednesday night  (29/2/12) at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.

Ali get past Sabio's defense and confidently slotted into the bottom corner past Neil Etheridge. Though the timing of the goal felt sore it was a good performance from the Azkals, especially considering the last time the two nations played Malaysia won, 4-0.

Malaysia started the half brightest, playing patiently from the back and building up. The Azkals were restricted to counter attacks but soon the roles switched as the scrappy pitch made the short, passing game untenable. Pumping the ball into the box from crosses and long throws the Guirado brothers—Angel and Juan Luis—looked particularly threatening with their height but generally failed to test the Malaysian keeper in the first half.

Malaysia came closest to scoring first when Kunanlan Subramaniam saw Etheridge off his line and made an audacious attempt from the left wing. He beat the Fulham goalkeeper but the ball just landed on the top of the net, inches away from opening up the scoring.

It was the Azklas who broke the deadlock first, though, as another dangerous long throw from Sabio found Wolf laxly marked and he took full advantage to get his head to the ball and beat Shakir Ali in goal.

The Philippines were supported as passionately as ever by the Kaholeros and were buoyed on by the home crowd of around 8,000. As usual the Kaholeros were in fine chanting form and not many countries can boast such unwavering support during home and away games.

The Azkals won the first half playing very English football, a physical game crossing the ball into the box at every opportunity searching for the tall players to head in. A Stoke City style of football, very physical and direct play particularly with long throws, perhaps reflected the deteriorating quality of the pitch but Malaysia came out in the second half spurred on by what was probably a strong half-time team talk.

Working several shots early, most ballooned over but Wan Zack Haikal took the ball down the right and turned Ray Jonsson, playing in dangerman Safee Sali but his shot was magnificently blocked by Sabio.

Sabio was one of those players singled out for praise by coach Michael Weiss in the press conference as the German mentor noted his improvement over the past few months. Sabio then made a second block moments later from Kunanlan as the winger got free 12 yards out but he slid in to block a certain goal.

Weiss then made a change, replacing Carli De Murga with veteran Roel Gener but it was Jason De Jong who made the next impact on the game with a high lunge. Any stronger and it would have been a red but fortunately for him there was no serious damage to the player and he escaped with a yellow for a challenge many have dubbed as a "Hi, I'm Jason De Jong" kind of tackle.

The Azkals fashioned the next chance as Etheridge's long ball found James Younghusband on the right wing. He brought the ball down well and chipped in a great pass to Angel Guirado in the center. Also controlling well, Guirado clipped the ball over his man and headed the ball in the air several times before trapping it and curling towards the top corner. The ball bounced off the post and was eventually cleared for a corner.

Unlucky with the first attempt Guirado latched onto Sabio's long throw and attempted an overhead kick. It was just too close to the keeper but showed his growing confidence and skill. He left the pitch shortly after, though, replaced by Misagh Bahadoran and the Filipino-Spanish winger was wincing again as he left the field. A little more luck and he could have doubled the Philippines' lead and sealed the win.

Marwin Angeles took to the field in place of the booked Jason De Jong for the last fifteen minutes with Malaysia still pressing for the equalizer. They almost got it in the 80th minute when Safee Sali found space on the edge of the area and curled towards the top corner. It looked like it was destined for the top corner but for a top quality save from Neil Etheridge.

The Fulham backup goalkeeper couldn't keep out the equalizer, though, as the otherwise solid Sabio was turned by Ali who slotted in with his left foot to even the score with only injury time left.

Malaysia, ranked six places above the Azkals in the FIFA world  rankings, is the closest rivals to the Philippines in Southeast Asia. Malaysia is just ranked ahead of India and are at a same level to Tajikistan also and the performance particularly shows the progress the Azkals have made.

After the game Weiss seemed satisfied with the result and performance, saying: "Overall I think we can all be pleased against a solid and strong team. We were a little bit unlucky in the end but it was a fair result… I'm very proud of the team."

In the next week the Philippines travel to Nepal on the back of this impressive performance to compete in the Challenge Cup. — JVP, GMA News

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