Match Ratings: Philippines vs North Korea
The Philippine Azkals secured a precious point here after holding Group H leader North Korea to a goalless draw at Kim Il-sung Stadium in Pyongyang.
The Azkals defended bravely in a second half where the Koreans attacked without let-up to preserve the clean sheet that breathed life to the Filipinos bid of reaching the final round of qualifying.
READ: ‘Brave’ defense helps Azkals make point in Pyongyang
It was a terrific response from the Azkals after a disastrous outing at home last Sept. 8 when they absorbed a 1-5 beating at the hands of Uzbekistan.
But summoning the fighting spirit reminiscent of the years when the team was just beginning its rise, the Azkals pulled off a result that could turn out to be one of the biggest yet in Philippine football.
More importantly, the Azkals remained within striking distance of North Korea and Uzbekistan halfway into the qualifying tournament. North Korea has 10 points, while Uzbekistan increased its tally to nine after a 4-0 away win over Bahrain.
READ: PH Azkals hold North Korea to scoreless draw in WC Qualifiers
What made the result even more remarkable was the fact that the preparation for the match was far from ideal. The United Football League, where majority of the squad plays, wrapped up its season last month, which meant players were seeing action in a competitive game for the first time in weeks.
The Europe-based brigade made up of Stephan Schrock, Stephan Palla, Neil Etheridge, Jerry Lucena and Roland Muller are all playing regular football for their respective clubs which meant match fitness wasn’t a problem.
READ: Dooley praises Azkals’ fighting spirit in draw vs N. Korea
Still, it was a tough proposition for the Azkals having to play a team known for its physicality, quickness and endurance.
Azkals coach Thomas Dooley made three changes to the side that lost to Uzbekistan, inserting Amani Aguinaldo, Patrick Reichelt and Schrock to the starting eleven. Javier Patino couldn’t make the trip because of a hamstring problem, allowing Schrock to get a free role up front, while Reichelt who looked sharp in training leading to the match replaced Misagh Bahadoran. Aguinaldo who helped steady the backline in the second half against the Uzbeks was given a start to counter the Koreans’ size and physicality with Stephan Palla relegated to the bench due to a slight knock.
The change meant Luke Woodland took Daisuke Sato’s position at the back with the Fil-Japanese pushed to an advanced position to provide more attacking threat.
Dooley stuck with Etheridge, who has been having a solid season with Walsall in the English third-tier.
Almost immediately, the Azkals showed the North Koreans they were no longer the same team which they dominated in a 2-0 win in Nepal three years ago. Manny Ott confidently picked up the ball from kickoff and probed at midfield before losing possession on the final third. It was as if Ott was telling the Koreans that the Azkals weren’t afraid of them and they have the quality to hold on to possession. The Azkals were the better team in the early exchanges with the hosts threatening with long balls into their final third. Pa Kwang-ryong was the attacking outlet and his presence allowed the Koreans to gain plenty of possession on the final third. The Azkals used their fouls wisely, but they needed some brave goalkeeping from Etheridge to make sure that set pieces were not going to be a problem.
The Azkals got two good opportunities for their enterprising play in the first half with Schrock nearly drilling home a low cross from Sato in the 16th minute. Five minutes later, it was Phil Younghusband who saw his 25 yard free kick sail over the bar. After a good 25-minute spell for the Azkals, the Koreans started to find their feet. Already booked for a challenge on Pak, Aguinaldo was lucky not to be slapped with a penalty when he tugged the North Korean No. 9’s jersey inside the box. The half ended with the Azkals frustrating the Koreans with their stout defending.
The second half was one-way traffic for the North Koreans. Misagh Bahadoran was sent in for Iain Ramsay on the left, but the Fil-Iranian did more defending than being a threat up front as the North Koreans stepped up their onslaught. The Azkals were on survival mode as the home supporters egged on their players to claim a winner. Etheridge proved his worth, getting down well to save a low shot from outside the box in the dying minutes, before palming away an effort in stoppage time. The Chinese referee surprisingly added eight minutes to the 90 maybe because the Azkals took their time with injuries and in deadball situations.
In the end, the Azkals’ valiant defending proved enough to claim a famous result in the football-mad country. It wasn’t the best football played by the team, but it was one of those games that a result was needed more than anything else. The grit and fight showed by the team however on enemy ground was a joy to watch.
Amani Aguinaldo 8 – A consensus man of the match for his teammates, the 20-year-old played his best game as an Azkal, snuffing out every danger created by the North Korean striker Pak Kwang-ryong. This match suited to his style, using his built well to deal with any threat. He got an early booking for a foul on Pak, but defended smartly and valiantly in a second half where the Azkals were under siege.
Neil Etheridge 8 – Terrific response from his error-strewn performance against Uzbekistan. Collected crosses with authority and came off his line effectively to help snuff out any danger when the situation called for it. Well-positioned to save a couple of headers in the first half, before making two key saves late on to preserve the clean sheet and the draw.
Jerry Lucena 8 – His experience came in handy in this match as he organized the backline made up of two youngsters in Aguinaldo and Luke Woodland. He was a calming presence in defense amid torrent of North Korean attacks.
Luke Woodland 8 – Off the pace against Uzbekistan, the 19-year-old Woodland bounced back with a commanding performance on the left side of defense. He coped well with the physical play himself and got a few defensive headers out from North Korean set pieces.
Stephan Schrock 8 – Given a free role by Dooley up front, Schrock caused all sorts of problems to the North Korean defense in the first half. Missed the Azkals’ best chance in the 16th minute, but his speed and ability to take on defenders remains an important aspect to the Filipinos’ game especially when they’re trying to get a result away from home.
Phil Younghusband 7.5 – The Azkals captain nearly curled home the winner for the Azkals only for his effort to go wide in the first half. Was forced to do more defending in this game, which meant he couldn’t do wonders for the team going forward. Led by example as he tracked down opposing midfielders rushing to the box and came up with a few key interceptions.
Manny Ott 7.5 – The reigning UFL player of the year showed composure on the ball in the first half and worked well with Younghusband at midfield as the Azkals settled into the game early on. But like the rest of the team, he was part of a solid Azkals defensive unit that helped keep the clean sheet.
Daisuke Sato 7.5 – Came up with a couple of marauding runs on the left in the first half, one of which could have easily been a big chance had he taken a touch closer to goal. Went down with cramps late in the second half as the Azkals defended bravely. Replaced by Stephan Palla.
Martin Steuble 7.5 – You always know what you’re going to get from Steuble – composed on the ball, physical with his defending and almost mistake-free. Committed a few fouls that disrupted the Korean attack, and got forward intelligently, managing to float in a few dangerous crosses inside the box in the first half.
Patrick Reichert 7 – Won a couple of headers early on and was a threat on the right side with his speed, running off the ball. Combined well with Ceres teammate Martin Steuble on a few occasions in the first half, but the danger he posed was negated in the second half when the Azkals put more men behind the ball to survive the Korean onslaught.
Misagh Bahadoran 7 – Relegated to a substitute’s role, he still managed to put in a fine shift. His aggressiveness in putting pressure on the ball and willingness to get forward when the opportunity came gave the Azkals some life in the second half. Was left isolated on a few occasions as the Azkals took less risks on attack.
Stephan Palla 6 – Helped the Azkals see out the game, after coming in for Sato. Didn’t start due to a slight knock.
Paul Mulders 6 – Gave the Azkals some size as they faced wave after wave of attack when he came on for Reichelt. Helped relieve the pressure on the Azkals defense with his ability to hold up the play.
Iain Ramsay 6 – A quiet performance from the left winger as he couldn’t influence the game as he usually does with the Azkals doing more defending than attacking. Was substituted at halftime by Bahadoran.
Match Ratings: Philippines vs Uzbekistan
Match Ratings: Philippines vs Yemen
Match Ratings: Philippines vs Bahrain
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.