There must be a condition that the football gods had written into a celestial program governing Philippines versus Malaysia internationals that reads: must end in a draw. That the condition is absolute was evident again last night as the two nations played to a fourth consecutive deadlock in a FIFA international friendly played at the Cebu City Sports Centre.
A late, mystifying and totally erroneous penalty awarded by the Indonesian referee to Malaysia for a handball committed by Philippines captain Anton del Rosario outside the box must be another condition intended to provide excitement and a twist of irony; but nonetheless was governed by the primary condition of ‘must end in a draw.’
Up stepped Safee Sali for a totally undeserved penalty; and Patrick Deyto, whose handling and decision-making in his third international were impeccable, duly complied with the obligatory save to preserve the scoreless stalemate.
Hints that this would end in one were earlier provided by one Nate Burkey, recalled from the international wilderness and thrown into the fray for the last quarter of an hour. The luckless Burkey earned a place in Azkals folklore with a hattrick of clear chances all of which he could not score from.
All these happened within a five minute period in which the Philippines were in the ascendancy and likeliest to score.
The first came in the 75th minute, after Deyto’s catch amidst a crowd of players was quickly released for a lightning counterattack. Burkey got at the end of a flowing move and could have lobbed the advancing Malaysian goalkeeper to open scoring. Instead, he opted to turn away from goal and wait for reinforcements to arrive.
A minute later, Martin Steuble sent in a measured cross from the left flank which found Burkey unmarked with the Malaysian goal at his mercy. It was a ball begging to be taken with the right foot; but Burkey used his left to send it wide in a chance that was arguably harder to miss.
Moments later, Malaysia failed to properly clear a Philippines corner. The ball broke back to Burkey who had space inside the box. His swivel to set up the shot was excellent; and, to be fair, he would have scored in a rugby game. The name of the game, however, was soccer football.
The final chance came two minutes later after good work by Patrick Reichelt down the right flank. A low cross found Burkey unmarked in the middle; but his powerful shot grazed the bar on its way out and into safety.
This match was almost an anti-thesis to the March international hosted by Malaysia in Selayang, when the hosts blitzed the visiting Filipinos with attack after flowing attack in an opening half when they were denied three times by the woodwork.
In Cebu, the Malaysians sat back and defended deeply, allowing the Philippines to boss possession but crucially denying striker Ruben Doctora Jr. the space to use his lightning pace. The diminutive striker was understandably dominated by Malaysia’s defence, as most of the Philippines’ best work especially in the first half was down the flanks.
Both teams had their chances to score in a cagey first half. The Philippines almost took the lead in the 14th minute when a Jason de Jong corner ricocheted off Zubir Azmi and hit the bar.
The quick-thinking de Jong was again behind another goalscoring chance for the Philippines in the 32nd minute, when his flick found Reichelt unmarked in front of goal for a free header that went wide. The latter probably did not realise that he had time to bring the ball down and make the Malaysian goalkeeper really work for his night’s pay.
Although this latest draw between the two countries may seem like something of a letdown for the Philippines, especially after the slew of chances that went Burkey’s way late on, the game would have served its purpose.
Thomas Dooley has wasted no time since his appointment as head coach of the Philippines in increasing the pool of players to choose from. He has introduced new faces many fans probably did not even know of and revived the international careers of others like del Rosario and Burkey.
Aside from Deyto, Daisuke Sato and Simone Rota continue to grow in stature with every game. The more these new players – mostly home-based – become accustomed to the international game, the less dependent the Philippines will become on Europe-based players as well as the whims and caprices of their clubs.
Whilst not too long ago, a Philippine team missing its expatriate big names would have been dangerous to fingernails, last night’s performance offered an assurance that – at lease at regional level – even a home-based team will be competitive.
Dooley will probably need to work on quick combinations down the middle just top of the box and better running off the ball, which could have unlocked Malaysia’s defence last night given the Philippines strikers’ lack of stature.
That said, the Philippines really did more than enough last night to have won comfortably. It was probably just down to that condition: must end in draw!