By FRANCIS SANTIAGO
June 29, 2011, 8:39pm
MANILA, Philippines — Filipino-American midfielder Nate Burkey made a spectacular debut last night, lifting the Philippine football team to a 1-1 draw against a stubborn Sri Lanka side in the first leg of their qualifying series for the 2014 FIFA World Cup at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The highly-favored Azkals looked unlikely to salvage anything from the highly-physical game after midfielder Chathura Gunarathna gave the home team the head start in the 41st minute.
Gunarathna silenced a small Filipino crowd when he drove a fierce hit into the top-right corner of the net after the Azkals’ wall failed to block his right-footed shot that slightly hit the head of Rob Gier off an indirect free kick.
Azkals German coach Michael Weiss immediately sent in Burkey to replace ace striker Phil Younghusband, still recovering from a right leg injury.
The switch paid off with almost immediate effect after Burkey headed home a failed header by James Younghusband from close range in the 49th minute.
It was a flowing shot that started from Chieffy Caligdong who struck a gorgeous hit off a freekick.
The 25-year-old Burkey, who traces his roots from Cebu and first played for the Azkals during their local exhibition match against the UFL-All Stars last month, logged just his first international goal for the Philippines.
It wasn’t the kind of ending expected from the Azkals who appear to have the superior attacking skills than their rivals. But the compact defense of the Lankans worked wonders for the home team, which went a man down early in the second half.
“There’s work to be done, but I know we can make the job done in Manila,” Azkals team manager Dan Palami said.
Fatigue seemed to have affected the Azkals’ game, after their offense looked disoriented with players appearing to move slower than their South Asian rivals, who only had two weeks to prepare according to their Korean coach Jang Jung.
But Palami said it was not because of fatigue or over training but because of the irregular level of the field. The Azkals trained for two weeks in Germany for their first World Cup qualifying appearance in 10 years.
It was the second draw for the Philippines in the last seven matches in the qualifiers after earning a 1-1 draw against Laos when the country hosted the game at the Philsports Arena in 2001.
But the Azkals can win at home on July 3 for the return match at the sell out Rizal Memorial Football Stadium, where some 13,000 fans are expected to come in droves, which may include President Aquino.
Playing in a 4-4-2 formation, the Azkals got off to a brighter start in the match that was high on chances, but it was Lankans who came closest to opening the scoring when striker Sharaz Kaiz’s goal-bound header was saved by Azkals goalkeeper Neil Etheridge in the second minute.
Both teams played on almost equal footing at the onset as there were plenty of counterattack opportunities in a first half marked by Sri Lanka’s rough game plan that led to heated verbal exchanges.
Three yellow cards were shown, two for Azkals – Aly Borromeo, Fil-German Stephan Shrock – and another for the home team.
The Philippines’ travelling and flag-waving supporters cheered on every pass as the Azkals saw more clear goal-scoring opportunities, but striker Younghusband failed to finish, including two clear goal-scoring opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Philippines dropped three notches in the latest FIFA rankings, slipping to 159 while Sri Lanka slipped two spots down to 171.