Lone strike lifts Palestine to AFC Challenge Cup title

With their 1-0 victory in the final edition of the Challenge Cup, Palestine secured a berth in the 2015 Asian Cup as they will join Jordan, Iraq and Japan in Group D, reports Paul Freelend from the Maldives.

Palestine's Ashraf Al Fawaghra, centre, gets a pass off against Rob Gier of the Philippines durign the AFC Challenge Cup final on Friday night in the Maldives. Courtesy World Sports Group
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Palestin 1 Philippines 0

Palestine Al Fawaghra 59'

Man of the match Ashraf Al Fawaghra (Palestine)

MALE, Maldives // The one thing the Philippines could not afford to let happen in the AFC Challenge Cup final eventually did, and it cost them dearly.

Scoring the first goal is rarely unimportant in football, but it was more crucial than usual for the Azkals. Palestine had not conceded a goal going into Friday’s final at National Stadium in Male, and when Ashraf Al Fawaghra scored at the hour mark, the Philippines were left with a mountain to climb that they ultimately failed to scale.

With their victory in the final edition of the Challenge Cup, Palestine secured a berth in the 2015 Asian Cup. They will join Jordan, Iraq and defending champions Japan in Group D.

Palestine coach Jamal Mahmoud, who dedicated the victory to Palestinian Football Association president Jibril Rajoub, said advancing to the continental championship would be a platform for the country.

“This is very important to all Palestine. We want to send a message to the world that we want sports and peace in Palestine,” Mahmoud said. “We can do more things if we have peace in Palestine. It is very important for us to go to the Asian Cup.”

Philippines coach Thomas Dooley raised eyebrows among Azkals supporters, starting the final with an approach almost 180 degrees different from the positive play of his team’s other four matches. The Azkals sat back and defended in numbers, allowing Palestine to dictate play against a minimum of pressure.

Even so, Palestine still managed to fashion several chances with their possession and movement off the ball. Philippines goalkeeper Roland Muller was forced into four saves during the opening half-hour, the most notable of which was a full-stretch denial of Khader Abuhammad in the 16th minute.

Phil Younghusband spurned a golden chance for the opener five minutes before halftime. He collected the ball off his chest and spun past two Palestine defenders at the top of the box, but after going clear he spooned his shot over the bar.

A frantic sequence just before the break left both sides breathless, if also scoreless. A Younghusband turnover in midfield allowed Imad Zaatara to lead a counter-attack down the right, eventually centering for Al Fawaghra. Collecting the ball at the penalty spot, Al Fawaghra drew out Muller, but both slipped before he could play the ball. Amani Aguinaldo, whose stumble had allowed Al Fawaghra to get free, recovered to half-clear the danger. The ball ball fell to Abdulhamid Abuhabib, but he was charged down before he could get off a shot.

Haytham Theeb came close to the opener, heading against the post in the 54th minute with Muller stuck in the centre of the goal. Al Fawaghra put Palestine in front at the hour mark, curling a 25-yard free kick over the Philippines wall and past the dive of Muller. From there, the Philippines were forced to come out and attack. Palestine, meanwhile, were in their element, relying on their size and organisation to see out the remainder of the match.

Daisuke Sato put a brief scare into Palestine three minutes from full time, forcing goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh to palm away a 30-yard shot that looked destined for the top corner. Jason de Jong also nearly snuck a late equaliser with a chipped free kick that bounced just wide of the post.

Al Fawaghra earned the tournament’s Golden Boot award with four goals, edging out Maldives captain Ali Ashfaq with his strike in the final, while Palestine’s Murad Said was named player of the tournament. Afghanistan received the Fair Play award.

Mahmoud, a native of Jordan, managed a smile after the match when asked about facing his home country at the Asian Cup. He said the people of Jordan were happy for him and had always supported him.

Turning his attention to the Asian Cup, he said he hoped to clear up problems with the Asian Football Confederation that left several potential call-ups out of the tournament.

“We have many players who did not come to this championship because of some problems. I hope they will be with us next time,” Mahmoud said. “We have to have more camps and more friendly matches. We must do more before the Asian Cup.”

The Philippines, meanwhile, will focus their preparations on the AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s regional championship, in November and December. They have an automatic berth in the tournament proper after reaching the semi-finals in the previous edition


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