A star-studded Philippine side assembled to achieve qualification to the AFC Challenge Cup next year completed the job and put an exclamation point with a resilient and resolute effort.
Facing a side it hasn’t beaten before, the 10-men Azkals mustered quality and resolve to overcome a stubborn and physical Turkmenistan side, 1-0, last night to clinch top spot in Group E before a raucous crowd at Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Phil Younghusband picked up from where he left off against Cambodia, scoring the lone goal in the 67th minute as the Azkals finished top to join Myanmar, Afghanistan, Palestine and Kyrgyzstan in the eight-team tournament.
“In the end, the one who fights hard was rewarded,” said Azkals coach Michael Weiss. “We wanted to qualify as top of the group and we were able to do it.”
Turkmenistan, the 2012 losing finalist to North Korea which has already beaten the Philippines twice in this tournament, also qualified as the top second-place team together with Bangladesh.
The Maldives was already assured of the spot as hosts in the tournament which rewards the champion of a spot in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Austrlia.
The victory bore hallmarks of the Azkals’ strengths. Defenders Rob Gier, Juani Guirado, Dennis Cagara and Carli de Murga proved equal to every Turkmenistan attack, while Chris Greatwich put in a brilliant shift at midfield after a long absence.
Stephan Schrock dazzled on the left with his work rate and creativity, engineering chances for Javier Patino and Younghusband.
The goal was on equal parts a defensive lapse from Turkmenistan, Cagara’s hard work and Patino’s composure that gave Younghusband the opening to fire home the game-winner.
It was Younghusband’s 33rd goal in 47 matches for the national side in his fifth in two matches, although he could have gotten in the scoresheet as early as the opening minute when Schrock’s pass found him at the far post only to be denied by the post.
But Younghusband’s evening ended early when he was sent off with five minutes remaining for a second yellow card for pulling back a Turkmenistan defender. Younghusband was booked in the first half for an obvious handball.
Gier, the stand-in captain with Chieffy Caligdong on the bench, took pride at another remarkable effort from the team.
““It’s the team spirit that’s special about this team,” said Gier. “We can see out there that when it was needed, when we needed that extra yard and put a tackle in when we had to put our body in line, we do it. We do it for each other. We do it for the country.”
Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge was kept out of the starting lineup again, but the former first choice man between the posts didn’t mind the snub.
“It would have been nice to have played but coach has made the decision and I have to respect that,” Etheridge told the Inquirer. “It’s a team sport and I’m here for the team and always ready to battle in the next game.”
Etheridge carried a one-game suspension to the tournament for his conduct in the third-place match against Palestine in the Challenge Cup in Nepal last year.