Hot Azkals yield close decision to Kuwaitis

Olmin Leyba (The Philippine Star) - October 18, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine Azkals took a 1-2 setback to familiar tormentor Kuwait in a heads-up performance that made officials beaming with satisfaction and optimism for what the future holds for Pinoy booters.

The 147th-ranked Azkals kept in step with the frenetic game of the technically-skilled Kuwaitis (112th) in the friendly held at the Kuwait Sports Club Stadium, and if not for a penalty kick awarded in the 70th, it would have forced a standoff against a fancied side that beat them on aggregate, 5-1, in last year’s Asian Qualifiers for the 2014 Fifa World Cup.

Defender Juani Guirado was tagged for a foul inside the box, leading to the penalty kick. Hamad Al-Enezi, sent Phl custodian Neil Etheridge the wrong way and shot the ball to the left corner to give Al Azraq the upperhand and the eventual game-winner.

“This game against Kuwait showed us where we are...but even more significantly, it has shown us where we could be,” said team manager Dan Palami, whose wards played Al-Azraq just four days after an ego-boosting goal-less draw with 115th ranked Bahrain in Manama.

Kuwait went on a blistering pace from the get-go and made Etheridge a busy man, but the gutsy Azkals held their ground.

Etheridge, playing on loan for the Bristol Rovers, showed he is at the top of his game by making a number of great saves, including a couple of 1v1 situations and a superb top-hand save off the penalty kick of Bader Al-Mutwa and stoppage of his rebound in the 27th.

Phl’s first choice keeper, however, couldn’t stop a charging Al Mutwa’s looping shot from the right side eight minutes later, allowing Kuwait a 1-0 upperhand. Still, that was the only score he surrendered in the first half to Al-Azraq, who had all but one of their eight attempts on target in the initial 45 minutes.

The Azkals, getting energy from returning stars Phil Younghusband and Angel Guirado, went on an attack  mode in the second half and got better scoring chances.

Their resilience paid off in the 60th when referees called a handball on a Kuwaiti defender clearing Dennis Cagara’s shot and pointed to the penalty line. Younghusband, back in the fold after a non-callup in the Philippine Peace Cup, hard angled it to low left corner to score the equalizer, his 27th international goal for Phl.

After Al-Enezi’s penalty kick, the Azkals pressed for the tying goal but their chances went begging.  

“Kuwait definitely had the advantage in skills but fitness-wise, it’s there for the team and just needed fine-tuning. I’m sure the people saw the team’s improvement in fitness and jelling and hopefully, this continues all the way to the AFF Suzuki Cup,” said Philippine Football Federation president Nonong Araneta.

 “You could see the pace; it was very fast in the first 30 minutes of the game. If our fitness level was low, we can’t sustain that for the whole game,” he added.

Second half stats showed the Azkals having more attempts, 6-5, three of which were on target against Al Azraq’s two. 

The friendly with Kuwait capped the Azkals’ 10-day training camp in the Middle East. They  will next play Singapore on Nov. 15 in a return friendly in Cebu.



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