Don’t count the Philippine U23 Azkals out just yet in the 26th Southeast Asian Games.
Substitute Joshua Beloya struck twice inside the final four minutes as the Philippines kept its flickering semifinal hopes alive after a pulsating 3-2 win over Laos Friday night at the Lebak Bulus Stadium in Jakarta.
The Bacolod-based Beloya, who grew up in Switzerland, scored on a tap-in in the 90th minute before completing the fightback with a clinical finish three minutes into injury time as the Under-23 Azkals registered their first victory of the tournament after back-to-back losses.
“We wanted to show that we have a team that’s willing to fight for the country for more than 90 minutes. The players showed they are more than just the Manny Otts, Jason de Jongs, but they are Filipinos,” said Palami, who gave a lively pep talk with the team.
With the victory, the Azkals still have an outside chance of making the semifinals with three points, although they would need to beat Myanmar and Brunei in their remaining matches and hope that a confluence of events like Vietnam losing to Brunei and Myanmar and Timor Leste play to a draw to advance to the medal round. The Azkals also hope that Laos beats Timor Leste.
“We know our chances of making it (to semifinals) are slim but what is important is that we come out and play with pride and show that never-say-die spirit the team is known for in our last two matches,” Palami added.
Much of the Under-23 Azkals’ campaign has been littered with heartbreak, but for four enthralling minutes Friday night, Beloya gave them something to cheer about and breathed life to the Azkals’ flatlining bid.
The Azkals trailed 1-2 and were down to 10 men when Beloya, born to an American father and a Filipino mother, delivered the sensational goals.
Beloya equalized after finishing off a flowing move that started with a reverse pass from OJ Porteria at midfield. Porteria’s pass released Mark Hartmann on the right and he set up Beloya for the easiest of goals.
Growing in confidence, the Azkals completed their comeback with Beloya again on the firing end.
Showing the skills he honed while playing for the youth team of FC Zurich and with Negros Occidental in the UNder-23 Championship, Beloya latched unto a long ball and displayed great composure to hold off his defender before firing past the Laos keeper.
Manny Ott opened the scoring for the Azkals in the seventh minute, combining well with Jason de Jong and Jinggoy Valmayor to score with a side-footed finish just inside the box.
But the Laotians carved up plenty of chances on the right flank and they were rewarded in the 38th minute with Lamnao Singtao’s close-range strike.
Singtao put the Laotians in front, 2-1, three minutes into the second half, completing a quick counter attack with a cool finish against Azkals keeper Roland Muller after Jacques Van Bossche’s pass was intercepted at midfield.
The Azkals were reduced to 10 men when Patrick Hinrichsen picked up a second yellow card in the space of less than 10 minutes in the second half.
The buildup to the match actually centered on the sudden departure of Azkals skipper Matthew Hartmann who quit the team and returned to Manila Thursday.
Hartmann told the Inquirer that it was his decision – not the coaches – to pull out of the squad because “circumstances gave him no choice but to leave.” The Fil-British player did not elaborate.
In Hartmann’s absence, Jason De Jong and Manny Ott were selected co-captains for the Laos match, which marked the fourth meeting between the two countries.
The Philippines has lost all three matches against Laos in the SEA Games the last coming in 1999 when the Filipinos, despite scoring the first goal through Norman Fegidero, bowed, 2-3, in Brunei.
And just when it looked like the Filipinos were headed to football oblivion in these SEA Games, Beloya gave them a ray of hope with two late goals.