Strong second half propels Azkals past Maldives
MALE – Playing the Maldives in its home stadium was always going to be a tricky encounter for the Philippines.
Not only were they going to deal with a team that had ambitions to progress further in World Cup Qualifying, the Azkals also had players far from their best fitness levels since their seasons with their clubs had already been wrapped up a few weeks ago.
The pressure to follow up that huge performance against China last month was also mounting with Azkals coach Scott Cooper needing to find a level of consistency in their play regardless of the pedigree of the
The start was tepid and erratic, but the Azkals did come away with a 2-1 victory on the strength of an improved second half that saw Iain Ramsay score his first goal in more than two years and Patrick Strauss bagging his second goal of the qualifiers.
Cooper was pleased at the way his team responded after half-time. Patrick Reichelt had just missed a penalty in the 38th minute and the hosts were growing in confidence just before the break.
“It was a colourful, pointed and direct,” said Cooper. “There were no grey areas on the feelings expressed by players and I think anyone could have noticed that something must’ve happened at halftime just at the way they responded in the second half.”
Ramsay immediately tried his luck from range just seconds after the restart and the Azkals played with a spring in their step, pressing high and looking to always win the ball early.
Aside from his goal, Strauss did what he does best, hunting the ball in dangerous areas especially when the hosts tried to build from the back.
His persistence in the 69th minute paid off when he stabbed the ball home from close range after Reichelt and Luke Woodland were denied by the post. A moment of indecision in defense allowed the Maldives to
pull the goal back late on, but the Azkals did enough to get maximum points, prompting Cooper to hail the character of his squad.
“I mean we can say two things about consistency: performance and result. This was purely about result,” he said. “It’s a difficult place to play, its a hard stadium to play in. They (Maldives) were
full of spirit. And it made it more difficult because our first half performance wasn’t up to the standard of the character of the team.
The missed penalty was a blow because a lot of times when you miss a penalty, the other team comes back. Again at halftime, we had to speak quite strongly over what we could deal with the expectations and we
saw the reactions in the performance in the second half.”
The Azkals arrived in Dubai late Friday, needing to rest and recoverfor the duel against Syria on Tuesday at Rashid Stadium. Tied with China with seven points from the first five matches, the Azkals remain in the thick of the fight of the Top 2 finish that could see them make the third round of qualifying for the first time in history.
But the Syrians are the only unbeaten team in the group and have already beaten the Azkals, 5-2, at Panaad Stadium two months ago.
“We’ve seen them and they’ve seen us and we’re able to learn more about them in the last few matches,” said Cooper. “We’re going to need every player to play well on Tuesday.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami was happy to see the team taking steps atthe right direction as players have stepped up to the challenge in the last three matches.
“It’s great to see the team bounce back after the loss to Syria with seven points from the last three games,” said Palami. “We’ve got a great momentum and a atmosphere within the team. The players are in
high spirits and they know what’s expected of them. Hopefully, we’re able to carry that over to the match against Syria.”
Palami also gave credit to Philippine Football Federation president Nonong Araneta for making sure the team’s needs are taken care of in this crucial stretch of the qualifiers.
“The leadership of Sir Nonong has been instrumental in our qualifying campaign,” said Palami. “Getting the results in the last three matches would not have been possible if he had not taken an active role in
helping us prepare the team for matches.”
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