Philippines makes historic AFC Challenge Cup finals appearance
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Philippine Azkals moved just a win away from the 2014 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup title after they defeated Maldives in an emotionally-charged match, 3-2, at the National Stadium in Male on Tuesday night.
The Philippine side needed extra time to survive the gritty challenge posed by the host team and advanced to the AFC Challenge Cup final for the first time in the country's history.
Phil Younghusband and Jerry Lucena had one goal each in the first half for the Azkals, but it was Chris Greatwich's goal in the 104th that put the Philippines through to the final.
Despite conceding two goals, Roland Mueller gave an outstanding performance with spectacular saves, including saving a penalty.
"The boys went out tonight and proved they were hungrier and they simply wanted this more," said Azkals coach Thomas Dooley.
The win was particularly special for Greatwich, who helped the Philippines score a historic first 4 years ago when he bagged a brace against then Suzuki Cup defending champion Vietnam to produce one of the biggest shocks in AFF Suzuki Cup history.
The Azkals looked sharp against the Maldivians in the first half, as they constantly pounded the host team’s backline.
The Philippines showed the Maldivians signs of things to come when Patrick Reichelt nearly scored on a header off Younghusband’s corner in the 8th minute.
Eleven minutes later, the Filipino-British hustled his way past a Maldivian defender before turning around for a half volley that sent the ball crashing to the back of the net. This pushed the Philippines ahead, 1-0.
The Maldivians got a lucky break in the 36th when Mohammad Umair outwitted Roland Mueller with a kick that saw the ball bounce to the back of the net. It was the Azkals’ first conceded goal in the tournament.
But Jerry Lucena was quick to respond after conspiring with Daisuke Sato for a goal of his own to make it 2-1 for the Philippine side.
Maldives came out more urgent in the second half with long balls and pacy counter-attacks. Their strategy paid dividends in the 54th when Ali Ashfaq won a penalty kick.
But just like in the Azkals' win versus Turkmenistan, Mueller read Ashfaq's movements right and tipped the ball away.
In the 66th, Maldives equalized the game when Assadhulla Abdulla caught the ball from a corner and scored a goal on a deflected shot.
Reichelt had a chance to secure the lead for the Azkals after receiving a cross from Chris Greatwich, but his header sailed over the crossbar in the 84th.
The Maldivians then unleashed another dangerous attack in added time. Mueller stretched near the post for a one-handed save, keeping a 2-2 deadlock that sent the game to extra time.
The Azkals appeared to have lost some steam during the extra minutes, but Chris Greatwich, displaying the similar brilliance he showed in their 2010 campaign, converted Reichelt’s shot in the 104th to make it 3-2 for the Philippines.
Maldives repeatedly tried to equalize in hopes of forcing a penalty shootout, but the Azkals’ defense held up.
Things became heated near the end of the match when Ashraf and some of the Filipinos engaged in a shouting match. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.
The Azkals will square off against Palestine in the finals after the latter clinched the other finals ticket by defeating Afghanistan, 2-0.
Whoever wins between the Philippines and Palestine on Friday will clinch the title and secure a spot in Group D of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup with Japan, Jordan, and Iraq.