Azkals Through AFC 2012 Group Stages despite absent key players

By Abac Cordero

ULAN BATOR – The Philippine Azkals escaped the big freeze of Mongolia and headed to tropical Myanmar, snatching a berth in the group stage of the AFC Challenge Cup despite a 1-2 setback to the Blue Wolves at the MFF Football Center here yesterday.

The Azkals advanced by virtue of a higher aggregate of 3-2, counting its 2-0 win over the Mongolians in the opener of their tie in Bacolod City last month.

President Aquino lauded the feat of the Azkals over the Mongolians.

“The Filipino people stand united in congratulating our Azkals on their 3-2 aggregate win against the Mongolian Football Team during the pre-qualifying playoff match for the group stage of the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup,” he said.

“This is a victory borne out of the constant striving for excellence of our very own Azkals. Their excellence is not borne of luck, but of the perseverance that characterizes true athletes,” Aquino said in a statement.

They fly home tonight and will leave on Saturday for Myanmar for matches against host, Palestine and Bangladesh in the group stage. The top two teams will advance to the Elite Eight.

“We lost but we advanced, and that’s what’s important for the moment,” said Philippine Football Federation president Mariano “Nonong”Araneta over the phone.

“It was really tough for us to play under this condition. The weather was harsh, very harsh. We’re not used to this kind of a situation,” he told The STAR.

“We managed to get through despite the torturously cold condition. We would have wanted the win, but this will have to do. For now, it’s on to Myanmar,” said team manager Dan Palami.

James Younghusband broke the ice for the Azkals in the 3:11 mark of the first half. He was very close to the goal when he flicked it in following a miss by teammate Chieffy Caligdong from the left flank.

Mongolian goalie Ganbayar Tseveensuren lost control of the ball, and Younghusband, a midfielder, found himself at the right place to score the opening goal of the exciting match.

The Azkals celebrated like the match was over, many of them all smiles, pointing to the crowd. Azkals goalie Eduard Sacapano, in yellow, stormed down the field to join the celebration.

But it all turned out to be premature as the Mongolians equalized in the 21st minute, courtesy of their skipper, Lumbengarav Donorov, who scored from inside the penalty box.

Sacapano, a 31-year-old taking over the chores from the absent Neil Etheridge, deflected the shot with his hands, but not enough to prevent the Mongolians from scoring.

The Mongolian crowd, which filled most part of the 2,500-seat venue, celebrated after the equalizer, leaving the Azkals stunned that the Mongolian goal looked so easy to make.

The Mongolians took the upperhand in the 34th minute. It came via a penalty kick awarded to Garidmagnai Bayasgalan, off a foul by Jason Sabio.

Sacapano had the chance to redeem himself or even turn hero. He faced the Mongolian defender, and knew exactly where the ball was going, to the left, the moment it took off.

Sacapano blocked the ball with both hands, but it bounced off a couple of meters in front of him. Bayasgalan was there for the rebound, and the go-ahead goal.

The first half ended with the Mongolians, more used to the minus-six weather for the day, ahead. Azkals defender Anton del Rosario shook his head as he marched off the pitch.

In the second half, the Mongolians seemed to have slowed down, and yet the Azkals failed to score anew, looking more concerned with their defense.

The Azkals knew that they had the upperhand with their aggregate score, and that even if they lost the match, as long as it’s not by a margin of three goals or more, they would advance.

The Azkals had several cracks at the goal in the final half with Caligdong, Yanti Barsales, Phil Younghusband and even Aly Borromeo trying to get a free kick in from a mile away.

The Mongolians also kept on trying, and a couple of times came close to a third goal. On the 87th minute, another golden chance came up, but they blew it as well.

When the referee blew the final whistle, the Azkals were in no mood to celebrate, even if they had advanced to the next round. To them, it was still a bitter loss.

“Thank you to everyone who watched the game and supported us. We are very proud to be Filipinos and represent the Philippines,” said Phil Younghusband.

“Guys, (we’re) really sorry about the loss. Glad we qualified though. Worried I will miss the games in Myanmar,” added the striker who left the pitch late with a pulled hamstring.

He will remain a doubtful starter in the group stage, and it would all depend on the tests he’d undergo once the team arrives in Manila tonight.

“Thank you for all those whos supported and I apologize for the result. I Promise we will redeem ourselves in Myanmar,” said Del Rosario.

“Thank you everyone for the undying support. The game was difficult and we apologize for not winning here. We will bounce back,” said Sabio on his Twitter account.

Their coach, Michael Weiss, came to the rescue.

“Given the harsh condition and all the things that happened the past few days, I’m happy with the result. The players are disappointed but it’s time to refocus,” he told Araneta.

The German coach said it wasn’t easy for the Azkals to play under conditions entirely new to them, to most of them, and everything they had to go through the past few.