This first appeared on March 31,2011 on the award-winning sports blog, Fire Quinito.
The Azkals’ Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup journey that started one raucous February night at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City, Philippines culminated in euphoria at the Bogyoke Aung San Stadium in Rangoon, Burma on the afternoon of March 25, 211.
We are through to the AFC Challenge Cup in 2012, for the first time in Philippine football history.
To achieve this feat, the Azkals went through arctic temperatures, tropical humidity, massive earthquakes, minor tremors, diverted flights, lost luggage, passport problems, injuries, and personal and club commitments, among other things.
Coming into the last group game against Bangladesh, many were openly wondering about the team’s tactics thus far. Coach Hans Michael Weiss had fielded three different starting elevens in the Azkals’ last three matches, adding a new player in the starting unit each time (Jason Sabio, Angel Guirado, and Jerry Lucena).
There was doubt about the fluidity and understanding among the players. Talk in various Internet forums was rife about the tactics being employed by Weiss. There was also the case of misfiring striker Ian Araneta – what to do with him?
The team and the coaching staff deserve all the credit. In the end, Araneta repaid all the faith shown to him by the coaches by scoring the opening goal against Bangladesh. It was as if an enormous rock was lifted off his shoulders after that goal. We could only deduce from the live updates on Twitter, but it seemed like he was livelier and free from burden after he scored the goal.
It’s such a shame that the Burmese government pretty much censored the live broadcast of our three group games. It was such a wasted opportunity for the Azkals to show more Filipinos the game of football. Had the game been shown live, it would have afforded the man on the street a firsthand experience of the beautiful game, Philippine-style. The three games could have been Football 101 to all Filipinos.
Instead, only a handful of fans were able to tune in to Twitter to read updates about the game courtesy of Craig Burrows and Roy Moore from PinoyFootball.com, as well as Cedelf Tupas of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Dyan Castillejo of ABS-CBN.
Then again, Myanmar, with its military junta, may have been the perfect venue for this Azkals team. With a virtual news blackout, the Azkals were shielded from distractions and were able to concentrate on the game; this Philippine side had focus throughout the tournament.
The choice of Myanmar as host country remains a curious one, even in hindsight. Oddly enough, hosting the event didn’t seem to do the home team much good, as Myanmar’s White Angels finished dead last in the group with only one point to their name.
Because of the hosts’ woeful campaign, a draw for Bangladesh would have been enough to see them through. They didn’t need to gun for a victory; they just needed to park the proverbial bus and grind it out. Instead, they lost – and big – to the Philippine side, a result that cost them a slot in the final tournament of the Challenge Cup.
Was Bangladesh as bad as its 0-3 capitulation to the Azkals suggests, or were the Azkals just that good? It was probably a bit of both.
Like the Azkals, it was the Bengals Tigers’ third game in five days. However, this was their first time to play in the 15:30 kick-off time. Did the mid-afternoon heat play a factor? The coverage team in Myanmar complained of heat during our first game in the 15:30 slot. Did playing two consecutive games under the mid-afternoon heat serve the Azkals in good stead?
After Araneta scored to give the Azkals a 1-0 lead, there were suggestions among Twitter fans following the updates to just “park the bus” – that is, to forget about offense completely and just concentrate on preventing Bangladesh from scoring. I must say, never before in Philippine history has the idea of parking the bus been more fashionable.
Let’s elaborate a bit further on the “parking the bus” strategy. Make no mistake, it’s not the only way to play defense, but it’s the most extreme form of defense, wherein a team sacrifices all attacking play in favor of a solid defense. The team realigns itself from a standard 4-4-2 formation to a 4-6-0 or an 8-1-1 formation, which means that we have given up all intention of scoring ourselves.
This strategy is usually employed by very weak international teams, who clearly have no hope of actually scoring a goal and instead will try to limit the number of goals they concede, lest the game become an international disaster.
A clear example of parking the bus is when teams like Switzerland, which has very little creative and attacking talent, plays a team like Spain, which boasts of a wide array talented players. The only hope of the Swiss to get a result is to roll up their sleeves, defend for their lives, play anti-football, and park the bus. Switzerland actually did all that, and even scored a goal, against Spain in the 2010 World Cup.
So leading 1-0 against Bangladesh, should we have packed it in?
One of the reasons we grabbed that 1-0 lead in the first place was because we kept on pressing from the opening whistle. We looked tirelessly for a goal which would give us a lead. We probed Bangladesh, and we had numerous chances to score.
Immediately shifting to a defensive formation after just getting a one goal lead could have backfired for the Azkals, because it could have caused us to lose our edge. In keeping a very defensive formation, we might end up yielding possession of the ball, which would give the opposition chances to level things up.
Knowing a draw would not be enough for us, we simply could not afford to take that risk. The best option was to continue pressing for a second goal, while at the same time being aware, at the back of our heads, that we had a one goal lead.
In short, we should still attack, but this time, using a calculated attack without the reckless desperation that a goalless encounter might force us to do. That was the strategy employed by Coach Weiss, and because the Azkals were clearly the better of two teams, they ended up beating Bangladesh 3-0.