A ragtag Philippine men’s national football team tried their best but failed in their return to international play in almost two years, absorbing a painful 0-2 loss to China in the second round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup-2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers Monday evening in the Sharjah bubble.
After holding the fort for the entire first half, the once pristine Azkals defense committed two crucial errors that led to the two Chinese goals.
In his first cap as Azkals’ goalkeeper, Bernd Schipmann fouled a surging Wu Lei at the 56th minute en route to a penalty kick, which Wu easily goaled. Gaining a confidence boost after a lackadaisical first half, Chinese defender Tang Miao issued a splendid cross to an unguarded Wu Xinghan for China’s second goal at the 65th minute.
The Azkals had two shots on goal at the first half courtesy of Mark Hartmann but these were blocked by China’s defense.
Despite two weeks of training and the absence of key players due to various reasons, Azkals head coach Scott Cooper was satisfied of his team’s performance but protested the rough play of China.
“China deserves the win but they should have been given a red card ]in the first half],” Cooper said, referring to an elbow absorbed by full-back Michael Kempter from Tang in the 16th minute that resulted in a broken nose.
Despite these limitations, however, the Azkals found bright spots particularly from rookie defender Jefferson Tabinas, who stepped up for Kempter and made crucial blocks and interceptions against China’s offense.
Prior to the game, the Philippine Congress failed to process the naturalization of Ceres/United superstar Bienvenido Marañon.
Birmingham’s Neil Etheridge, who steered the Azkals to a goalless draw in the Azkals previous match against China, was absent due to injury. Scoring machines Iain Ramsay and Javi Patiño were likewise unavailable due to various reasons as well as veterans John-Patrick Strauss and Daisuke Sato.
The Azkals have also been grieving the death of former Under-19 standout Kieth Absalon, who was killed in an alleged bomb explosion last Sunday in Masbate.
Cooper, though, remains unfazed about the development of the national team.
“Still we’ve shown we could handle China. I am proud of my team and I think we did a good job,” Cooper said in the post-game presser.
According to Cooper, the goal right now is to improve from their last World Cup qualifier performance to maintain a steady rise in the team’s international performance.
“The most points we’ve had in World Cup qualifiers is ten, we now have seven points and we’re targeting to surpass our record,” Cooper explained.
The Azkals remain at third place in Group A but are now six points behind China, who are still at second place behind Syria.
The Azkals will next play winless Guam on Friday.
(Image from The Azkals Facebook page)