Despite stinging defeat, Philippine booters earn respect of Kuwaitis
Kuwait team officials said they found a worthy challenger in the hard-fighting Azkals and predicted their surge in the Asian scene in the next five years.
The 10-man Al-Azraq hammered out a hard-earned 2-1 victory over the Azkals to complete a 5-1 aggregate win in their second round World Cup Qualifying duel Thursday night at the jampacked Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila.
“You have a very good team who played well tonight,” said Abdul Aziz Hamad, the lead assistant of Kuwait’s Serbian coach Goran Tufegdzic.
“I think you are growing up with this team. You have good quality players and a very good system in football. I hope next time you’ll be able to qualify (in the 2018 World Cup).”
Hamad, who played an active role on the Kuwait touchline as Tufegdzic opted to stay on the bench, went as far as predicting that the Azkals could be a top 10 Asian team in the next few years.
“We have more rankings and more experience, but I thought in short years, I hope to see you as one of the top 10 national teams in Asia,” he added.
The Azkals were the heavy underdogs in the tie not only because of their lower ranking in the International Football Federation, but because of Kuwait’s vast experience in the international level.
In fact, Bader Al-Muhtwa, the 26-year-old Kuwaiti striker, already has 108 appearances for the national side, which is still more than the combined caps of the most experienced players in the Azkals in Aly Borromeo and Chieffy Caligdong.
The Kuwaitis, ranked 67 places higher than the Azkals at 95, are also the 10-time Gulf Cup of Nations champions and had qualified for the World Cup in 1982.
But for an hour in the second leg, the Azkals were up to the task against the slick-passing Kuwaitis, whose pattern of play was deeply entrenched within their players.
Linkup plays between midfielders and the strikers were incisive and if not for the heroics of Neil Etheridge and the post, which denied them twice, the Kuwaitis should have been ahead at halftime.
Instead, it was the slow-starting Azkals who gained the upperhand with their enterprising play and sheer hard work in the late stages of the first half.
The Filipino-German midfielder Stephan Schrock handed the Azkals the lead at the stroke of halftime with a 25-yard thunderbolt from the left flank after diminutive winger Chieffy Caligdong displayed steely resolve to keep possession against two Kuwaiti defenders.
In an eerie flashback of his saved chance in the 0-3 loss in the first leg, Phil Younghusband was again denied by the Kuwaiti keeper on another clear opportunity in the 52nd minute that could have doubled the lead for the Azkals.
The lead lasted for only 17 minutes after a bizarre turn of events that left the crowd and the Azkals stunned.
The Kuwaitis were reduced to 10 men after Fahed El-Ibrahim was sent off for a clumsy tackle on Caligdong in the 60th minute.
Kuwait was actually about to replace Yousef Naser, before the striker struck the long-range shot that Azkals goalkeeper Neil Etheridge said he “should have saved” in the 62nd minute
Kuwait put more men behind the ball to offset its disadvantage, leaving Al-Muhtwa isolated up front. But the Azkals seemed to lack ideas when they reached the attacking third and were left vulnerable on the counterattack as they threw more men forward to chase a goal.
We can only learn
With five minutes remaining, Kuwait’s pacy winger Walied Ali put the outcome beyond doubt by beating Etheridge on a one-on-one and Ray Jonsson, who had done so well to cancel the Kuwaiti’s threat on the right flank slid in vain to stop the effort.
“They were just a step faster, better and organized,” said Azkals coach Michael Weiss. “We faced a very smart team, but nonetheless we can only learn from this experience. Defeats are hard to swallow but to be at this level is already an achievement.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami rued the lack of concentration on some plays that led to the goals of Kuwait.
“I think we were more compact today except when you play against a world-class team like Kuwait, you really pay for your mistakes and on the few occasions we made mistakes they (Kuwait) took advantage,” Palami said.