Vintage Azkals in 2018: Against all odds in Bangladesh

Xavi scores free-kick screamer in AFC Champions League

This group of Azkals came to Bangladesh and competed with the aim of putting up a decent performance. In the end, they surpassed expectations, reaching the semifinals unscathed and going down honourably against a team driven with retribution.

Considered as a “B Team” with the absence of the core members of the national football team, the level of performance exhibited by this group of players despite the short turnaround time to gel with each other is nothing short of commendable as they surpassed expectations by reaching the Last Four of the 2018 Bangabandhu Gold Cup.

Surprising opener

In the first fixture against Laos, a tightly contested match was anticipated between the two Southeast Asian sides.

But what transpired was a spirited, clinical performance up front and a defensive masterclass at the back from the Filipinos onwards a 3-1 win as Jovin Bedic, Jarvey Gayoso and Misagh Bahadoran got on the scoresheet.

What made the outcome a welcome surprise was due to the fact that the team lacked the preparations heading into the tournament as everything was assembled in haste from the roster, even the coaching staff.

But despite all these factors that may have contributed to tempered expectations, the squad managed to pull off a glittering result.

Proving they belong

In the Azkals’ second assignment, it was against the hosts Bangladesh which, despite a very partisan crowd in a jam-packed venue, the Filipinos were able to eke out a win with Kenshiro Daniels scoring the lone goal.

It was a result that continued to surprise the doubters and the pragmatists given the odds running against Coach Andres “Anto” Gonzales’ wards.

But in the end, despite the circumstances that the fainthearted would probably yield to, the Filipinos once again prevailed as they proceeded to the semifinals undefeated and top of Group B.

Honourable exit

With the semifinals set to be against Tajikistan, the Azkals headed against a team raring to hand the Filipinos a beating.

In the three times that the two countries have met, the Philippine team proved to be the Central Asians’ nemesis with the most recent two fixtures before the showdown in Bangladesh proving the most painful losses as an AFC Cup berth was at stake in those qualification matches.

A fourth straight loss could prove to be catastrophic for “The Crowns” so it was understandable that this fixture served as a must-win tie for them.

In the end, despite numerous chances and sustained siege by Tajikistan, only two goals were registered. The Philippines came out with a spirited defensive effort for a respectable performance that ended in a loss as their rivals got the consolation they probably deserve from the crushing defeats in the past Asian Cup qualifiers.

Coach Anto’s impressive debut in international football

UP Maroons Head Coach Anto Gonzales came out with a commendable performance as the gaffer of the national squad, despite the short turnaround time to prepare for a grinding tourney.

The semifinals against the Tajiks could have been a step too far to conquer for the mentor but reaching the knockout stages with a perfect record can already be considered a massive achievement for the young mentor that stamps his abilities in guiding a team, all the more the Azkals.

It also opened the possibility that with further involvement in the Azkals program, as part of the coaching staff,  Coach Anto could be a head coach of the senior squad in the future.

But it cannot be denied that at this moment in time, Coach Anto’s main priority is the University of the Philippines’ varsity teams which he was able to bring to unprecedented heights, especially the women’s squad. So his possible future of sustained involvement with the national team is still up in the air and will only depend on the decision from the coach himself.

Louie Casas’ undeniable heroics

The most noteworthy of all the personnel of this Azkals team is Global Cebu’s goalkeeper Louie Casas who, despite his relatively small stature for a goalkeeper, was head and shoulders above the rest with his performance.

Several good saves, particularly in the match against Bangladesh and Tajikistan kept his team well in contention despite some nervy situations as the opponents’ were already peppering the Philippines’ goalmouth.

His crowning moment was surely in the semifinal match against Tajikistan where, despite being on the receiving end of a nasty collision and getting wounded in the process, opted to continue on and successfully kept up the high level of goalkeeping for the rest of the match.

In the end, the semis ended in a loss for his squad, but there was no denying that Casas gave his all to defend the flag and the goal behind him.

A promising wealth of talented options 

Despite this Azkals being a “B Team” or an alternate squad, the way they represented the flag and the badge of the Philippine Football Federation speaks volumes.

With what they have shown and what they have achieved, they deserved to be considered Azkals through and through.

If there would be some absences from the core lineup for whatever reasons, now lies an assurance that replacements await who are willing, hungry, and capable of making the country proud if called upon and given the chance to represent the flag once again.

This Philippine team that competed in Bangladesh’s 2018 Bangabandhu tourney maybe a second string of representatives, but they returned as if very much part of the main squad as they exhibited the true nature of the Azkals that they came to be known for – grafting, fighting for scraps, and defeating the odds.

They’ve shown they’re worthy of bearing the badge and they’ve earned it WELL.

Philippine Azkals Bangabandhu Gold Cup 2018 squad: