MANILA (UPDATED) – The Philippine Azkals suffered a heartbreaking loss in the finals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup after yielding to Palestine at the National Stadium in Male, Maldives on Friday night.
The Palestinians overcame the gritty Filipino squad, 1-0, to win the Challenge Cup title and a ticket to the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.
Amid several questionable calls, the Azkals put up a valiant effort against Palestine, which got its lone goal from Ashraf Alfawaghra’s free kick in the 58th minute.
Nevertheless, the Azkals' second-place finish remains historic for Philippine football as it is the highest placing the Filipinos have in the history of the Challenge Cup.
The Palestinians enjoyed most of the ball possession in the first half, knocking the ball around and taking several chances at the Azkals' goal.
Palestine's Abdelhamid Abuhabib had scoring chances in the 16th and the 25th minutes but the Azkals' defense held up, with Filipino-German keeper Roland Mueller tipping out both attempts.
The Philippines had a scary episode in the 43rd when forward Ashraf Alfawagra collided with Mueller when the keeper met him outside the box to challenge his attempt, leaving the goal open. Amani Aguinaldo and the rest of the defenders came to the rescue to clear the ball.
The Azkals' biggest chance in the half came in the 36th when Stephan Schrock's header caused the Palestinians to scramble and this left Paul Mulders open for a header. His shot went inches over the crossbar.
The Azkals improved slightly in the second half when Patrick Reichelt set up a dangerous cross for Phil Younghusband in the 51st, but the center forward was behind and failed to make contact with the ball.
After the crossbar denied Haytham Theeb’s attempt in the 53rd, Palestine gained a free kick 3 minutes later. This led to Alfawaghra’s goal that pushed the Palestinians ahead.
Azkals team manager Dan Palami was later asked by the officials to leave the technical area after he contested a yellow card on Reichelt.
The Azkals had a couple of good crosses in the 73rd and the 75th, but the Palestinians kept a tight leash on Younghusband and limited his movements.
The Filipinos desperately went for an equalizer late in the game. Daisuke Sato fired a long-range shot which was collected by the Palestinian keeper in the 86th.
The Azkals kept fighting until the end, but Palestine refused to concede a goal and crowded in front of the goal each time the Filipinos mounted an attack.
Palestine fired 16 shots, 8 of them on target, while the Filipino had 9 shots on goal, with 2 on target, in the game.
On the way to the finals, the Azkals drew with Afghanistan and defeated Laos and Turkmenistan in the group stage.
In the semis, the Philippines defeated host Maldives, 3-2, to advance to the finals against Palestine.