MANILA, Philippines – Much like the Juan Manuel Marquez lightning-quick punch that knocked the cold out of Filipino boxing pride Manny Pacquiao over the weekend, the Philippine Azkals also absorbed a telling blow that ended their magical run in the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup.
The Azkals did not see the goal coming.
Just as when they were about to prepare for a Singapore direct free kick, Khairul Amri came out of nowhere to slot in the long range shot off a short pass from Shahdan Sulaiman in the 19th minute to power the Lions to the finals with a 1-nil aggregate victory Wednesday night at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
In a split second lapse, the Azkals dropped their guard down and paid dearly for it as Amri took advantage of the slight opening that caught the Phl defense napping. So quick was the goal that left Phl keeper Ed Sacapano frozen as the ball passed through his right side.
It was the Azkals’ first goal allowed after three clean sheets against Vietnam, Myanmar in the group stages and Singapore in the first leg of the home-and-away semis.
“Everybody is extremely down. We would like to congratulate Singapore and wish them luck in the finals,” said Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss in the post-match presser.
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The Lions will gun for their fourth title in the tournament against the winner of the other semifinal clash between defending champion Malaysia and also three-time champion Thailand, which had a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
Phl came tantalizingly close to keep it a scoreless draw and forced a penalty shootout if not for that 19th minute meltdown. In a match that was decided by brilliance on offense and mental lapse on defense, the Azkals were unfortunately on the losing end of the yardstick.
They waited two years for a “home match” and a crack at first ever Suzuki Cup Finals berth. Now they will have to wait for another two years for one more chance at glory.
But Weiss was quick to add that the Azkals don’t have the luxury of time to lick and wait for this wound to heal.
“We don’t have much time to mourn because we are now preparing for the AFC Challenge Cup,” Weiss said. “Overall we think it was a good achievement, hopefully we could build on this experience and prepare a stronger team [for the Challenge Cup].”
Coming in confident after a scoreless draw in the first ever Suzuki Cup home match staged in the country last Saturday, the Azkals refused to be jolted by that “cheap” goal they gave away in the first half as Sacapano saved two more clear-cut chances by the Lions – a header from Baihakki Khaizan and an Aleksandar Duric attempt inside the box.
The Lions controlled majority of the first half until the Azkals finally veered away from the long balls and shifted to short passing game in the final five minutes producing two near scoring chances for Phil and James Younghusband.
With Chieffy Caligdong coming in earlier than expected, the Azkals were rejuvenated at the onset of the second half. The veteran Caligdong replaced the youthful Patrick Reichelt and his fresh legs off the bench suddenly tilted the favor to the Azkals. But the equalizer that could have been enough to send them to their first ever finals appearance in the ASEAN region’s top flight football tournament did not see the daylight.
Demitrius Omphroy, who had a bout with flu in Thailand during the group stages, also finally saw action for the Azkals replacing James Younghusband later in the second half but the time he missed with the squad took its toll as shown in his off-target passes.
Nearing the end of regulation, Weiss pressed the panic button and sent in another striker in Denis Wolf for right back defender Carli de Murga. Time, however, caught up with the Azkals as the Lions wisely opted to park the bus.
The Azkals will now train their sights on next year’s AFC Challenge Cup qualifier slated in March.