Playing with style and substance, the Philippines delivered a performance for the ages to topple a nation that played in the World Cup just six years ago.
Complimenting their hard-nosed, no-nonsense defending with a flair rarely seen on their attack, the Azkals scored two goals in the last 10 minutes to stun North Korea, 3-2, Tuesday night in their Asian Cup and World Cup Qualifying clash at Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Iain Ramsay rifled home the winner in the 90th minute after Manny Ott and Misagh Bahadoran found the back of the net, while Neil Etheridge once again sparkled on goal as the Azkals scored their third victory to finish with 10 points in the competition.
“We didn’t want to lose,” said coach Thomas Dooley.
“Not at home and not on Juani’s (Guirado) final game,” said Dooley referring to Guirado’s farewell match after the skipper announced his retirement last Monday.
The Azkals will miss out on the World Cup after a poor run of results, but their fine play in the last two matches should make them a strong contender to reach the 24-nation Asian Cup in 2019. As it stands, the Azkals are third behind Uzbekistan and North Korea in the group. Only the top team is assured of reaching the next round of World Cup Qualifying.
True to their word, the Azkals showed plenty of fight and flair when their backs were against the wall. Going down 1-2 three minutes into the second half, the hosts carved out one chance after another until they were finally rewarded with late strikes from Ott and Ramsay.
Bahadoran opened the scoring with a header from point-blank range in the 43rd minute, pouncing on Javier Patino’s saved effort.
The lead lasted just three minutes as So Kyong-jin’s volley from just inside the box found the bottom corner, beating Etheridge, who had earlier denied So from close-range.
The Azkals heroically defended a set piece in the 48th minute, but North Korea’s persistence paid off as Ri Hyok-chol gave the visitors the lead with a shot at the far post after a save from Etheridge and a goal line clearance from Amani Aguinaldo.
But the Azkals played with confidence on the ball even as the North Koreans took their foot off the pedal. Dooley introduced Ramsay to add speed on the wings, while James Younghusband also returned to the side, replacing Bahadoran.
Ott almost equalized in the 57th minute after a flowing move sent him through on goal. But the Ceres midfielder could only send his effort wide.
Patino proved dangerous for the entire match with his hold-up play and his linkup with Bahadoran and newcomer Miguel Tanton.
In an enthralling sequence, Younghusband won the ball at midfield for Patino who released Tanton. Seeing Ott’s run, Tanton laid it off for the midfielder to fire first time into the bottom corner sending the crowd into delirium.
The Azkals grew in confidence after scoring the equalizer. Patino again was the creator, showing strength to hold up the play and wait for an unmarked Ramsay to arrive inside the box. Composed and clinical, Ramsay smashed the ball home for the winner.
“I like the outcome of the game and the words written on our shirts: We Believe,” said Dooley. “That was the main thing before the game that we can believe in ourselves that we can football against teams at this level.”