Philippines edge out Maldives in night of high drama at AFC Challenge Cup

The Philippines are know knocking on the Asian Cup's door, after winning Tuesday night to advance to the AFC Challenge Cup final against Palestine in a match that will send the winner to the 2015 Asian Cup.

Male, Maldives // If the Philippines keep winning at this rate, they could soon run out of payback to seek.

Tuesday’s 3-2 win after extra time against the Maldives not only sent the Azkals to the AFC Challenge Cup final, it provided a measure of revenge for their previous visit to National Stadium in Male, a 3-2 loss to the Maldives in 2010 Challenge Cup qualifying.

Rewriting history has been a consistent theme this tournament for the Philippines. Beating Laos 2-0 in the group stage marked their first defeat of their Southeast Asian neighbours, and their 2-0 win over Turkmenistan exorcised the ghosts of the 2012 Challenge Cup semi-finals, when the Azkals gave up two goals in the last 10 minutes in a 2-1 loss to Turkmenistan.

They will face Palestine, 2-0 winners over Afghanistan in the first semi-final, at 8pm UAE time on Friday in the final. The winner will claim the final Challenge Cup championship and a berth in the 2015 Asian Cup.

“When you’re flying, you’re flying. For the team, for the history, it’s great. It just motivates you,” Philippines coach Thomas Dooley said. “As long as we play football and are successful, it’s like a vitamin injection. You’re more focused, work on the details on the mistakes we made, trying to get better.

“We want to play at the next level, that’s not a secret. We came over here and wanted to win the Challenge Cup. We want to play at the next level and that’s the Asian Cup. We want to play against those big guys, not just win something but to play with them. That’s our biggest goal.”

In front of a boisterous crowd of 8,300 fans – a few hundred of whom were sporting Azkals colours – Phil Younghusband put the Philippines in the lead in the 19th minute with a move that would not have looked out of place on the basketball court. The Maldives failed to clear Jason de Jong’s free kick and the ball fell to Younghusband, who boxed out his defender Ibrahim Fazeel, turned and squeezed a shot past goalkeeper Mohamed Imran at the near post.

Much of the Maldives attack flowed through captain Ali Ashfaq, who floated between the Philippines centre-backs and looked to run onto long balls into space. The hosts threatened on the counter-attack several times before the breakaway goal they had threatened arrived after 36 minutes. A Philippines turnover in the midfield led to a counter-attack, and Mohamed Umair slipped behind the Azkals defence before deftly lobbing the onrushing Roland Muller to level the scores.

Just as quickly, though, the Philippines went back in front. Daisuke Sato broke down the left wing in the 39th minute and, while holding off the larger Ali Fasir, whipped in a cross that Jerry Lucena stabbed home at the second attempt.

The Maldives threatened to pull level again 12 minutes into the second half after Ashfaq drew a penalty kick, splitting Sato and Amani Aguinaldo before falling to the turf. Just as he did in the previous match against Turkmenistan, though, Muller produced a crucial save, diving to his right and pushing away the attempt.

“We have maybe the best keeper in the tournament,” Dooley said. “Once again he had some great saves and got another penalty, so I wasn’t afraid of penalty shots. He’s a real football player, he’s great in goal and has great timing, so I’m very pleased with him.”

In an attempt to shore up their defence and make it more difficult for the Maldives to catch them on the counter, the Philippines dropped back from a 4-3-3 into a 4-4-2. The long balls over the top were less effective, but that did not stop the hosts from taking advantage of a momentary defensive indiscretion to equalise.

Aguinaldo slid in needlessly for a tackle in the 65th minute and gave away a free kick just outside the area. While Ashfaq’s free kick hit the wall and was cleared behind, the ensuing corner from Umair was redirected toward goal and ultimately past Muller with a backheel by substitute Abdulla Asadhulla.

Fatigue and injuries sapped the match of some of its pace through the end of regulation time and into extra time. Maldives coach Drago Mamic was forced out of his planned tactical changes after Fazeel and Ahmed Shafiu left the match hurt.

In something of a callback to his opener, Younghusband again showed good control off his chest four minutes into extra time while taking down a long ball from Simone Rota, swiveling and forcing Imran into a one-handed save. His ensuing corner was only half-cleared, and his second cross from the right found an unmarked Patrick Reichelt at the far post. Reichelt’s half-volley went into the ground and spun toward Chris Greatwich, who supplied the final touch on the eventual winner.

The man whose goal against Singapore in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup touched off the Philippines’ rise to prominence had struck again, and the Azkals saw out the final 15 minutes to reach the final of a major tournament for the first time.

“I’m just happy right now. We’ve had eight games and lost only one so far. The team is getting better and better,” Dooley said. “Obviously in the tournament you’re getting tired and making more mistakes, but as a unit the team has grown together in the 10 days over here. The team is ready to fight against anything and we want to make the people at home proud. We want to play football that makes them excited and love it, and if we can move that on to the next game that would be fantastic.”

It was not all smiles around Male, with the thousands of Maldives fans in attendance – not to mention the reported 50,000 people who requested semi-final tickets – going home crestfallen. The hosts face Afghanistan at 8pm UAE time on Thursday in the third-place match.

Mamic refused to assign any blame after the match and praised his players for giving their all.

“I told the players that they are my heroes. I’m proud of them and all the country must be proud of what they showed today,” he said. “Unfortunately, the rules are very clear and whoever scores more goals in the winner. The Philippines scored three and we scored two.”

Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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