1) History Delayed
The magnitude of the game couldn’t be denied, even ABS-CBN agreed to show the Azkals once again after dropping them early in the year. The hype of the occassion may have proved too much for the Azkals. The game was open,nervy and physical, punctuated by several chances from the boys and some good counters by the Nepalis. The goalless draw means the historic achievement of reaching the Asian Cup for the first time is on the balance when the decisive games in March comes. Will the mainstream exposure remain by that time? One can only hope so.
2) Baffling Decisions by Thomas Dooley
Out of necessity and borne of the occassion, Thomas Dooley called up and selected an attacking lineup to the Himalayas. It was understandable that he exploited the physical,aerial and set piece advantage of the Azkals, but the failure to adjust to the in-game changes baffles the mind.
First, the direct passing to the wings employed by the Azkals did not seem to be very effective. Nepal either ganged up on the midfield passer or did just enough defending to throw the wing receiver out of position and intercept. It did lead to a couple of freekicks at the side of the box which they were unable to capitalize on, but Nepal was undone at times by slick passing and movement rather than route 1 play.
Second, Curt Dizon was causing trouble up front with his direct running and speed when he received the ball, which makes it confusing that he was taken off at half-time. It would be understandable if he was injured or burned out due to the altitude, but taking off the most potent weapon at that point is never a good option. Mike Ott works best as a poacher, and moving him upfront with Phil Younghusband deprived the forward line of speed and direct challenge that was key in unsettling Nepal.
Lastly, the Azkals are seemingly unable to cope with counter-attacking teams. Yemen showed the blueprint of disrupting the Filipino semi-high line with quick counters targeting the space between defence and midfield. This is where the continued use of Dennis Villanueva,who excels at intercepting and sweeping balls in this area for Global Cebu, at centre-back instead of defensive midfield is haunting the Azkals, which Nepal were luckily unable to exploit.
3) Setting the Stage for March Madness
Frankly, the Azkals have a bad record when it comes to pressure packed games. The biggest examples are the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup final loss to Palestine, the failure to qualify to the playoffs last Suzuki Cup on home soil, and so on.
But come March next year, Panaad will be the stage for the biggest game in Azkals and Philippine football history. Group F is the only group remaining without a clear qualified team so far. With Tajikistan also drawing Yemen 0-0, the Azkals need at least a draw against the Tajiks to qualify for the Asian Cup. Despite the past results, past heartbreaks and expectations, the nation prays the boys will come through in 4 months and make history.