Redemption for Etheridge, but Azkals return home empty-handed
Neil Etheridge: I felt we deserved a point from this match pic.twitter.com/1RGyj3xxo1
— Cedelf P. Tupas (@cedelfpt) March 24, 2016ADVERTISEMENT
TASHKENT—Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge wasn’t growing tired of the questions surrounding his error-strewn performance in the 1-5 loss to Uzbekistan in September last year. But deep inside, it consumed him. He failed to live up to his own high standards. He was aching for a chance to bounce back.
Etheridge took plenty of flak for conceding a goal within 48 seconds that all but dimmed the Azkals’ chance of pulling off an upset against the Uzbeks. How quick can people forget the times that Etheridge has bailed out the Azkals particularly playing against the big guns in Asia. But such is life of a footballer where you are only as good as your last performance.
On a cold Thursday night here, the 26-year-old Etheridge redeemed himself with one of his finest performance yet, minimizing the damage in a 0-1 loss to the Uzbeks in their World Cup Qualifying clash at Bunyodkor Stadium.
It was a performance reminiscent to the early days of the Azkals where they needed Etheridge to be at his utmost best to come away with results against the stronger teams in the region.
This time, Etheridge came up big against a certified powerhouse in the continent, a mainstay in the AFC Asian Cup.
“The goalkeeper was the hero today,” said Uzbekistan coach Samvel Babayan of Etheridge. “We didn’t score a lot of goals because of the goalkeeper. He deserves a lot of credit. He is the hero.”
“Neil was outstanding today,” said Azkals coach Thomas Dooley.
Etheridge produced a string of spectacular saves that left the Uzbeks and their 34,000-strong home fans frustrated. The Azkals went down to 10 men as early as the ninth minute when OJ Porteria was sent off but the Filipinos kept the Uzbeks at bay with a heroic defensive performance highlighted by Etheridge’s brilliant goalkeeping.
It took an exquisite header in the 59th minute from defender Anzur Ismailov to beat the Azkals goalkeeper who carried his fine form with his club, Walsall, in League One to the international stage.
“I believe we played extremely well considering that for most of the game we were under pressure,” said Etheridge.
”My teammates worked extremely hard. Uzbekistan are a really strong team. We can be happy at the same time we are upset to bring so much effort into this game and not get away with anything. But we need to take the positives out of this game.”
Etheridge was called into action as early as the seventh minute when a defensive mishap allowed Igor Sergeev to race clear only for the Azkals goalkeeper to deny him with a brilliant foot save.
With the Azkals going a man down, the Uzbeks piled up the pressure. Another defensive mixup left three Uzbek players free at the far post. The ball fell kindly to the Server Djeparov, but Etheridge anticipated the shot early, got down and foiled the Uzbek hero with a fine reflex save.
It was Uzbek skipper Omar Akmehdov who opened the scoring in Bulacan when his effort slipped past Etheridge’s hands and crossed the line. Akmehdov was left wondering why he wasn’t able to find the back of the net this time despite having at least three good chances. The first one came in the 43rd minute when Etheridge stopped his stinging drive from the edge of the box. A curling effort deep in the second half was also kept out by Etheridge.
The Azkals goalkeeper felt he could have done better in stopping the Uzbeks from breaking the deadlock.
“It was a good header but I think I should have saved that one,” Etheridge said.
“Before the game I was quite nervous because Uzbekistan is an extremely strong attacking team,” said Etheridge. “On a personal level, it was extremely satisfying to play well but this is a team sport and we are all upset that we didn’t get at least a point here.”
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