Philippine Daily Inquirer
KATHMANDU—The journey of Mt. Everest-like proportions continues for the Philippine Azkals here. Along the way, a squad growing in strength with every game is making history.
Displaying the resiliency and fighting heart that the team has been known for, the Azkals came back from a goal down to nip Tajikistan, 2-1, Tuesday and reach the semifinals of the AFC Challenge Cup for the first time at the Halchowk Stadium.
Strikers Phil Younghusband and Angel Guirado struck in a sensational second half as the Azkals, hounded by a sexual harassment controversy back home, responded resoundingly from a halftime deficit to eliminate one of the fancied sides in the tournament.
As the final whistle was blown, the Azkals formed themselves into a circle at the touchline and celebrated their biggest accomplishment yet since reaching the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup in Vietnam in December 2010.
The ecstatic players hugged each other, while captain Chieffy Caligdong raised the Philippine flag in front of a group of Filipinos who braved the chill to support the team.
The Filipino fans later sang the national anthem as the players whooped it up with a celebratory dive on the field with a rainbow serving as a fitting backdrop to one of the Philippines’ greatest moments in the sport.
Azkals manager Dan Palami, soaking wet from all the celebration, was at a loss for words.
“It’s unbelievable,” Palami said.
Nothing short of spectacular
The Azkals’ run has been nothing short of spectacular. They needed to go through prequalifying, winning over Mongolia in a two-leg affair, before hurdling the qualifying round in Myanmar last year.
Before they left Manila, Guirado and Lexton Moy were accused of sexual harassment for their conduct during a match with Malaysia last Feb. 29 at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
The odds were certainly stacked against the Azkals as they were also grouped with former champions North Korea and India. But the Azkals rose above adversity, even after going into halftime a goal down.
“I’m proud of this team,” said the Azkals’ German coach Michael Weiss. “This is not only fantastic, but a victory most deserved.”
The Azkals created the clear-chances in the first half, but the Tajiks took the lead through defender Negmatov Alexey’s header off a corner in the first minute of first-half injury time.
Caligdong looked to have cleared the ball from going past the line and Japanese referee Ryuji Sato had to discuss the play with the linesman before awarding the goal to the Tajiks.
Tajikistan was on the front foot in the early stages in the second half, but it was the Azkals who made the most out of their chance in the 54th minute.
Guirado did well to keep the attack going and sent a low cross for Younghusband. With Tajik keeper Alisher Tuychiev already beaten, Younghusband slotted it into an empty net for the equalizer.
Looming penalty shootout
Guirado earlier came close with a header that went over in the first half. And just when it looked like a penalty shootout was looming, the Filipino-Spanish forward rose above his defender and found the bottom corner to make it 2-1, 10 minutes from time.
Phil and James Younghusband and Paul Mulders came close to adding to the tally late in the match as the Azkals finished with a flourish.
Picking up from where they left off in the 2-nil win over former champion India, the Azkals started lively with Phil Younghusband coming close in the eighth minute with a shot from a tight angle that was saved.
Tajikistan enjoyed a good stretch of possession in the first half, but couldn’t craft a clear-cut chance as Carli de Murga, Ray Jonsson, Jason Sabio, Rob Gier and Juani Guirado proved more than equal to the challenge.
Neil Etheridge was called into action with an early clearance, but apart from that he was hardly troubled and was a commanding presence.
“You have to hand it to the guys, they played like there was no tomorrow and the results just came,” said Palami. “There’s talent here but they played with their hearts out.”