MANILA, Philippines—History was made at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
In front of a raucous crowd of more than 4,600 fans, the Philippine Azkals defeated visiting Tajikistan, 2-1, in a nervy Tuesday night encounter to secure passage to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
This is the first time in Philippine football history that the men's national team has qualified for the continental showcase, and they did so by displaying tremendous heart after falling behind by a goal to the determined Tajiks.
The Azkals finished at the top of Group F with 12 points on three wins and three draws, and will advance to the Asian Cup regardless of the result of the match between Nepal and Yemen.
"We never gave up," a beaming coach Thomas Dooley told reporters after the game. "They scored 20 minutes before the end, and a lot of teams would fall down but our team did not."
"We stepped up, we scored two goals, and we won," he said.
The boisterous crowd at Rizal Memorial was quieted in the 64th minute, when Kevin Ingreso gave up a penalty when he brought down Tajikistan skipper Davronov Nuriddin inside the box.
Nazarov Akhtam coolly converted from the spot, giving the visitors a 1-0 lead and putting the Azkals' dreams of advancing to the Asian Cup in peril.
But the Azkals had no intentions of losing on their home field. They played more aggressively, repeatedly pushing the Tajiks back, and their determination was rewarded in the 74th minute when Ingreso headed in a cross by Iain Ramsey to equalize.
"I was the lucky one who was in the right spot when Iain crossed the ball in," said Ingreso, who earned man-of-the-match honors. "I made the mistake, and it was a clear foul. I was down for a few minutes, but my teammates pushed me up."
"It's not often I score a goal with my head," added the midfielder, who was virtually unmarked when he lobbed the ball into the back of the net. "I was crying, the tears came out. The players were telling me that they knew I have character."
The euphoria was palpable at the stadium, as a draw would have been enough to send the Azkals to the Asian Cup.
Remarkably, the best was still yet to come for the Philippine team. Their triumph was sealed in the 91st minute, when Tajikistan was called for a handball inside the box, awarding a penalty to the Azkals.
Skipper Phil Younghusband calmly stepped up and scored from the spot, giving him his 50th international goal while securing the victory for the Philippines.
"It cannot be better," said Dooley. "To have this kind of game – somebody made a penalty, but (Ingreso) scores the equalizer. We get a penalty, and our captain scores his 50th goal. Everything was perfect."
There was some drama toward the end of the match as the two squads nearly came to blows at the Tajikistan end of the pitch, and when the dust settled, the Philippines' Dennis Villanueva and Tajikistan's Fathuloev Fathullo were assessed with straight red cards.
But even Villanueva's exit could not take away from the joy of the Filipinos at the grand stand, who erupted in celebration at the final whistle.
"We made history today for Philippine football," said Ingreso. "I cannot describe my feelings right now, but we totally deserve the win today."
The Azkals had a slight advantage in possession in the opening half, but they were unable to maximize their chances.
A strong stretch saw the Azkals win three straight corners, only for Daisuke Sato, Simone Rota, and Iain Ramsey get foiled by the Tajikistan defense. The Azkals' best chance came in the 37th minute, when Rota connected off a corner by Phil Younghusband but was unlucky to send his shot over the bar.
The Philippines then stood firm in the 45th minute, with their wall blocking a free kick by Tajikistan's Asrorov Siyovush to settle for a scoreless draw at the half.
All seemed lost for the Philippines in the 64th minute when Davronov opened the scoring, but just 10 minutes later, Ingreso redeemed himself in spectacular fashion and the Azkals were on their way to history.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)