Date with destiny as Azkals reach Challenge Cup finale after Maldives squeaker
By Karlo Sacamos
IT seems nothing was ever going stop the Azkals from sealing their date with destiny.
Putting on a performance to remember, the undermanned Philippine men’s football team survived Maldives, 3-2, in a pulsating semifinal match that needed extra time to reach the Finals of the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup on early Wednesday at the National Stadium in Male.
The Azkals made history, winning a breakthrough Final Four match in a tournament for the first time ever as they showed tremendous character even without a handful of key cogs and star Stephan Schrock playing limited minutes due to an injury, no less than against a fellow resilient squad with the home crowd behind it.
More importantly, the Filipino booters moved on the cusp of realizing their dream of qualifying to the prestigious AFC Asian Cup next year.
The Azkals thus set up a final match against Palestine on Friday after the latter eliminated Afghanistan, 2-0, in their own semifinal match earlier.
Chris Greatwich, who has provided the Philippines some of its most important goals in the recent past, reprised his heroics, firing the winner deep in the first half of extra session that silenced the hostile partisan crowd while sending their TV-viewing Philippine fans, who stayed up late in the wee hours of the morning, into delirium.
Not to be outdone was Roland Muller, who rose to the occasion anew by denying a penalty for the second straight game, apart from other impressive saves that kept the home squad at bay.
Phil Younghusband also scored for the second straight game, while Jerry Lucena scored his breakthrough international goal for the national side, which fended off a tough challenge from the Maldivians before hanging tough down the stretch.
Younghusband put the visitors in front with a half-volley after Maldives failed to clear a free kick 19 minutes into the game as he solidified his status as the country’s top scorer after increasing his tally to 36 international goals.
Mohammed Umair leveled the count with a chip shot over Muller in the 36th minute, but the Azkals quickly regained the lead three minutes later when Lucena converted a Daisuke Sato cross from the left side.
Maldives, however, sent Ibrahim Fazeel to the penalty area after drawing a foul, only for his attempt to be blocked by Muller in the 53rd minute.
Still, the home side, behind the prolific Ali Ashfaq, just would not budge and equalized anew in the 66th when Assadhulla Abdulla struck a neat back kick off a corner.
Both squads wound up tied after more than 90 minutes, prompting overtime, where Greatwich’s flick in the 104th minute off an off-target shot by Patrick Reichelt proved to be the difference.
Maldives was so desperate to equalize that the home team didn’t show fair play when the some Azkals suffered injuries in extra time.
Still, the Filipinos held on in the memorable match that saw rain drizzle near the end.