Azkals’ World Cup hopes go up in smokes
A World Cup qualifying campaign that got off to a dream start five months ago has turned into a painful, frustrating one for the Philippine Azkals.
The match against erstwhile winless side Yemen Thursday night should have provided a platform for a final push for a place in the third round next year.
But as the final whistle was blown at Rizal Memorial Stadium last night, it was the Azkals who were on their knees in despair.
Denied of a legitimate goal earlier, the Azkals conceded eight minutes from time as Yemen hacked out a stunning 1-0 win, all but dashing the Philippines’ hopes of advancing to the next round of the competition.
Substitute Ahmed Al-Sarori capitalized on some slack defending, firing from just inside the box to beat Roland Muller for the only goal of the match in the 82ndminute, giving the war-torn country its first win in six matches in the qualifying tournament.
With seven points, the Azkals were still in the qualifying mix mathematically before the match, but the outcome last night only delays the inevitable. The Azkals still have to play Uzbekistan in Tashkent on March 24 and North Korea at home five days later.
With a place in the next round of qualifying already slim, the Azkals can focus on keeping third spot that will guarantee them a place in the third round of 2019 Asian Cup qualifying.
The loss was a bitter pill to swallow for the Azkals particularly because of the fact that they were denied what should have been a goal in the 67th minute.
Martin Steuble’s low shot looked like it crossed the line, but South Korean referee Kim Hee-gon waived off the Azkals’ appeal, keeping the match scoreless and ultimately setting up the late Yemeni uprising.
The move was the Azkals’ best of the match as they struggled to carve out openings against a well-drilled, disciplined Yemeni defense. It came when two substitutes – Kevin Ingreso and Misagh Bahadoran – combined to set up an unmarked Steuble at the far post.
The controversial sequence came just minutes after Jerry Lucena forced a terrific save from Yemeni goalkeeper Ali Ayashi with a header off a Manny Ott free kick.
Surviving a couple of anxious moments defensively, the Yemenis grew in confidence as they counterattacked with pace and incisiveness.
Al-Sarori skipped past a couple of challenges before arrowing his shot just wide in the 81st minute. The fleet-footed attacker made no mistake a minute later, using a delicate touch to gain some separation from Ingreso before firing to the bottom corner.
With seven points from their first five games, the Azkals had no recourse but to pick up maximum points against the bottom team of Group H.
But it was the visitors who created the first two clear-cut chances with Muller called into action in the 13thminute by a Tawfik Ali shot that was palmed away to the post.
The chance turned out to be a portent of things to come as the Azkals came to grief later on.