It’s no coincidence that we’ve gotten better—Azkals coach Cooper
BACOLOD CITY—Philippines coach Scott Cooper’s voice reverberated inside the Azkals’ dugout just minutes before kickoff against China in their World Cup Qualifying match at Panaad Stadium here on Tuesday night.
“Don’t wait for another big team to come here and beat us,” Cooper told his team. “Let this be the moment.”
It wasn’t a win, but holding one of Asia’s top-ranked teams to a goalless draw surely felt like a victory.
In front of a crowd that was predominantly wearing the visiting team’s colors, the Azkals relied on a disciplined defensive display to end a 15-match losing streak against the Chinese, whom the Philippines last beat in 1919.
“What we’re doing is resetting the Azkals mind-set that this is not impossible, this is something that we should expect more and more going forward,” Cooper said.
“For me now, I’m going to make sure they’re not going to overenjoy a draw even though it’s [against] China.”
Still, this was by far the biggest result in recent memory for the Azkals as they proved equal to a squad that is ranked 59 places higher in the Fifa rankings at No. 68.
China has also beaten them three times in the last two years, including a 3-0 whipping in their maiden Asian Cup appearance last June.
Collectively, the Azkals showed they can play like one solid unit that can hold off even the most lethal of players in Chinese star striker Wu Lei and naturalized Brazilian Ai Kesen.
“We worked on a plan and put the effort in,” Cooper said. “We played 5-4-1 for real and not just playing deep and kicking the ball away but we turned it into moments where we could have scored.”
“If we play with focus and we played together as a team, we can achieve this kind of result,” Azkals manager Dan Palami said.
Veteran goalkeeper Neil Etheridge marked his return with a commanding performance in between the sticks, while captain Stephan Schrock led by example with a dynamic display at midfield.
“I think it wasn’t just myself, but everyone on the team did extremely well today,” said Etheridge, who came up with a fine reflex save on Hang Junmin’s shot in second half stoppage time to keep the game level.
“Some of the players looked up to me on how I was going to deal with situations. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to play at the highest level in the world, so that helped,” Etheridge said.
With a win and a draw in their first three matches, the Philippines remained in third spot with four points, behind unbeaten Syria and China in Group A.
“It’s no coincidence that we’ve gotten better,” said Cooper, noting that the camp in China last June gave the squad a huge boost. “I have got unbridled optimism on our players and the squad.”
Etheridge shares Cooper’s sentiment. “We’ve got more to give,” he said.