By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
THE Philippine men’s national football team made history on Monday night as it played in its first-ever AFC Asian Cup game. And it gallantly performed well, hanging on to just a 1-0 defeat against tournament favorite Korea Republic when many thought they would be beaten black and blue.
Coming out with much spirit and verve particularly on the defensive end, the Philippine Azkals made it difficult for the 2015 Asian Cup runners-up Taeguk Warriors throughout the match to make a good account of themselves in their opener in the prestigious continental football spectacle.
Philippine goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard was solid in his goal-manning duties in the opening half, standing his ground against a ferocious attack from the Koreans.
Complementing the goalkeeper’s performance were forwards Javier Patino and Patrick Reichelt, who provided scoring opportunities for the Azkals with their counter-attacks.
The Koreans though would beat the Philippine side to the first goal as Hwang Ui-Jo found the bottom of the net in the 67th minute.
The goal came after Hwang Hee-Chan’s back pass found Mr. Ui-Jo from close range with the latter making sure to connect after.
The Azkals tried to get back the point the rest of the way even as the Koreans attempted to add on their lead.
But the count would stay as is as the match hit full time and into the three-minute added time, handing the victory to Korea Republic and the full three points that went with it.
Despite the defeat, the Azkals were still high on their maiden showing, underscoring the gallant stand they put up showed that they belong in the Asian Cup and that they are in the tournament not to be just willing preys.
“We have a good team. This is our first time in the tournament and we came here not just to be part of it but we want to go through,” said Azkals defender Luke Woodland following their tightly fought match against the Koreans.
“I think we showed in today’s game how good the team is. We were up against a strong team, one of the contenders in the tournament, and we did well against them. We are looking forward to our next two games and we are out to shock people,” he added.
The Philippines’ next match is on Friday, Jan. 11, against China, which defeated Krygyzstan, 2-1, in their opener also on Monday.
In the Asian Cup, tournament format calls for the top two teams in each of the six groupings at the end of group play advancing to the next round, to be joined by the four best third-place teams.
CHINA’S LIPPI UNHAPPY AS THEY SCRAPE OPENING ASIAN CUP WIN
China’s manager Marcello Lippi questioned the attitude of his team after they came from behind to scrape a 2-1 victory over Kyrgyzstan thanks to an own goal and Yu Dabao’s late strike in their Asian Cup opener on Monday.
Kyrgyzstan goalkeeper Pavel Matiash pushed the ball into his own net five minutes into the second half to cancel out Akhlidin Israilov’s first-half opener before Yu secured the points for China with a calm finish 12 minutes from time.
With South Korea winning 1-0 against a defiant Philippines, who like Kyrgyzstan are tournament debutants, with a goal by Hwang Ui-jo, the east Asian nations are the Group C pacesetters but Lippi was not happy with China’s performance.
“I’ve been in China for two years now and it’s not the first time (we’ve been) in this situation,” Lippi said of his side’s disjointed display in the opening period.
“There were a few times when the team couldn’t play well in the first half and then, after I got angry and I pushed my players, I got the reaction I wanted from the first minute.
“Maybe it’s the characteristics of the players from China.”
Lippi’s side were outplayed in the first half by the Central Asian side and it came as little surprise when Israilov put Kyrgyzstan in front three minutes before the break with a volley from the edge of the area.
Matiash’s horrendous mistake, however, gifted the Chinese an equalizer when he palmed a seemingly harmless looping header from Zhang Linpeng into his own goal.
The goal lifted the Chinese and Beijing Guoan’s Yu slotted home late on to give Lippi’s team a winning start to the continental championship.
South Korea are attempting to win the title for the first time since 1960, although they were made to work for the three points by Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Philippines.
The Azkals defended resolutely but could not stop Hwang’s 67th minute strike as the Gamba Osaka forward took one touch to control Hwang Hee-chan’s cut-back before smashing the ball into the roof of the net.
Later on Monday, Carlos Queiroz’s Iran thrashed Yemen, another tournament debutant, 5-0 in Group D.
Mehdi Taremi scored twice in the first half, either side of a free kick from Ashkan Dejagah, as the three-time champions justified their status among the favourites.
Taremi gave Iran the lead with 12 minutes on the clock when he stole in to convert from close range after goalkeeper Saoud Al Sowadi spilled Sardar Azmoun’s long-range attempt.
Dejagah added the second 11 minutes later when his free kick came back off the post and crossed the line via the back of Al Sowadi’s head and Taremi made it 3-0 in the 25th with a header.
Azmoun hit Iran’s fourth from close range nine minutes into the second half and Saman Ghoddos added the fifth from just outside the penalty area in the 78th. — with reports from Reuters