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Azkals forced to settle for second place at 2014 AFC Challenge Cup

The Philippine men’s national football team, the Azkals, were forced to settle for second place in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, falling to Palestine, 1-0, Friday (early Saturday, PHL time), at the National Football Stadium in Male, Maldives.

It was a stunning reversal from the 2012 edition of the tourney, when the Philippines finished third with a 4-3 win over Palestine as well.

This is actually the last Challenge Cup, with the AFC opting instead to expand the field of the Asian Cup from 16 to 24, beginning with the 2019 edition of that tournament.

It was also historic match for both sides, as it was the first time the Philippines or Palestine had ever reached the final of any competition. It would also be the first time one of those two would win an international title beyond friendlies, and thus the first time one of these countries would play in the Asian Cup.

First half

Given it was the biggest game in either countries' histories, it was a bit of a slow and nervy start. The Palestinians had the early initiative with the Philippines playing compact in defense.

Early on, a defender's bad touch almost let in Phil Younghusband, but a recovering defender took the ball away from the Azkals' top scorer.

Soon after, the first shot sailed high from Hilal Musa before the first meaningful shot on goal in the 16th minute. A cut back to Abdelmahid Abuhabib in space, just inside the box, was met with a solid first time shot. Roland Muller though, was up to the task with a quality, reflex save to ensure the Philippines didn't go down early in the game.

Abuhabib again threatened in the 26th minute as a shot from just outside the area swerved in the air. Muller got both hands behind the shot and palmed it back into the center but the Azkals cleared.

The Philippines were struggling to build up an attack, with long, floated ball often missing their mark. Abuhabib then turned provider as he ran at the Azkals' defense and touched the ball to Ashraf Al-Fawaghra, but his first time shot was straight at Muller who gratefully gathered. There was an air of déjà vu minutes later as a cut back again found Abuhabib in a few yards' space and his first shot was once more straight at Muller.

The Azkals continued their nervy start in front of goal, however. A potentially dangerous free-kick in the 35th minute was first poorly taken by Phil Younghusband, before the return pass to him was overhit. The Philippines won a corner shortly afterwards and as it pinballed a bit inside the Palestinian box, Mulders sliced his shot just high and wide. The sequence of events summing up the first half performance.

But in the 41st minute the best chance for the Philippines fell to the one man all Azkals fans would hope it would: Phil Younghusband. As a through ball deflected into his path and he took it into the box, the perennial top scorer in and out of the Philippines struck it over. He had little time, to be fair, but a bit more composure and the Azkals would have taken a 1-0 lead into the break.

At the other end Palestine could have had a penalty as Al-Fawaghra turned Amani Aguinaldo and played it just beyond the oncoming Roland Muller to fashion the chance. Muller put in just enough of a challenge to make him stumble before Aguinaldo dived in with two feet. He got the ball, which is probably what saved him and the Philippines, but with a high challenge like that many referees would have pointed to the spot.

Second half

Following what must have been the biggest halftime team talk in Philippine football history, Coach Thomas Dooley made one substitution, Jerry Lucena replacing Stephan Schrock, the latter injured through much of the Challenge Cup and never looking like his true self as a result.

With Lucena on the field, along with Steuble, De Jong, and Mulders, it made four natural central midfielders, but the Philippines recognized their narrowness and started to play with more width.

Palestine, though, swept back up the field and put in a cross for Haytham Theeb. His glancing header bounced back off the upright with Muller beaten for the first time.

In the 58th minute Al-Fawaghra stepped up to take a free-kick that he won when Jason De Jong barged him down to stop his mazy run. With his right foot, he curled it over the wall and right into the top corner leaving Muller with no chance. It was his fourth goal of the Challenge Cup as he moved beyond the Maldives' talisman Ali Ashfaq to claim the Golden Boot, with a pearl of a free-kick.

Palestine almost doubled their lead in the 66th minute as Imad Zatara fired over after beating his man for Palestine's 15th shot at that point, while the Azkals had mustered just four in total.

Things got worse for the Philippines as Reichelt picked up a yellow card and team manager Dan Palami was sent to the stands, apparently for excessive complaints. Paul Mulders, largely anonymous in the match, made way for OJ Porteria as Dooley tried to introduce some spark to the game.

It was here that Palestine began winding down the clock though. And it took until the 87th minute for the Azkals to make a good chance. It came from an unlikely source in Daisuke Sato who rifled in a shot from distance forcing the Palestinian goalkeeper into his first decent stop of the night.

The Philippines followed that up with a deep cross which Phil Younghusband headed wide as it proved too little, too late in a game Palestine largely dominated.

So near yet so far

The Palestine team that won was a different side to the one which lost to the Philippines in 2012 in that third-place playoff, but such is the nature of team like Palestine, given their political situation. And this victory will certainly mean much for them with Al-Fawaghra and Said also winning the Golden Boot and MVP award respectively.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan won the Fairplay Award.

And so now the Azkals, who will certainly take this defeat hard but have much to be proud of, will look towards the 2014 Suzuki Cup as their next big title. Given Coach Dooley's one-year contract and remit of winning the Challenge Cup, whether or not he will be in charge may well be a source of speculation, but few people have doubted the change and positivity with which the Philippines are now playing with.

The Philippines fell at the last hurdle, but such is the progress of Philippine football that so many fans and analysts were even expecting the Azkals to reach that hurdle. Philippine eyes now shift to the Suzuki Cup where they are now expected to be contenders again. - AMD, GMA News