On to Maldives.
The Philippine Azkals once again recorded a first in local football history, beating Turkmenistan, 1-nil, to top Group E of the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
Phil Younghusband again provided the marginal goal for the Azkals, finding the back of the net in the 68th minute to put the Philippines through to the Challenge Cup group stage next year in Maldives.
It marks the first time a Philippine side has beaten Turkmenistan, and it avenged a 2-1 loss in last year’s Challenge Cup in Nepal.
Younghusband, who scored four of the Azkals’ eight goals in Sunday night’s 8-nil thrashing of Cambodia, gathered the ball inside the box after Javier Patiño failed to get to it and a Turkmen defender tried to clear it. He launched a curling shot that clipped a defender and ricocheted into the net.
“Finally we got the goal,” Azkals Coach Hans Michael Weiss said. “Got a little bit lucky. But who cares?”
The team actually had already virtually qualified – only a highly unlikely 0-8 loss would have knocked them out – but Weiss said they wanted to make a statement with a win. “I told them, ‘Forget about that we already qualified. We want to win this match. We want to send a message that we are the team to beat in Maldives.’”
Before a much larger crowd than the one that showed up last Sunday, the Azkals almost broke the ice right away, creating a scoring opportunity 30 seconds into the match when Stephan Schrock’s cross found Younghusband lurking to the right of the Turkmenistan goal. But the Loyola Meralco Sparks striker hit the post with his attempt, and the ball was cleared.
Arslanmyrat Amanov gave the Turkmen their first scoring chance in the 24th minute, but his low strike was easily gathered by keeper Roland Muller. Eight minutes later, a lazy back pass by Juani Guirado was picked off by Amanov, but Muller did well to thwart his attempt.
In the 40th, the Turkmen had their best scoring chance when Akmyrat Jumarazanow’s header off Gahrymanberdy Chokayev’s corner kick hit the crossbar.
The Azkals had two good chances early in the second half but were denied each time. Younghusband’s grounder from the right flank in the 50th lacked enough power and was easily gathered by the Turkmen keeper. Six minutes later, Younghusband’s through ball found Patiño inside wthe box with only the keeper to beat. But the keeper did well to snuff out the Fil-Spaniard’s attempt from close range.
Finally, in the 68th, Dennis Cagara, who was later named Man of the Match, dispossessed a Turkmen defender on the left flank and rifled a pass to Patiño, who stumbled trying to get to the ball. A weak clearance went straight to Younghusband, who uncorked a curling shot that hit a defender’s body before skittering into the net.
Younghusband had a golden opportunity to make it 2-nil in the 81st after he latched on to a brilliant flick from Schrock, but his attempt lacked enough force to go through. Disaster struck four minutes later when Younghusband was booked for his second yellow card and sent off, leaving the Azkals with just 10 men.
Less than a minute before the final whistle, Turkmenistan launched one last attempt at an equalizer, a long strike that Muller stopped and briefly fumbled, but he recovered just in time. A few seconds later, the referee blew his whistle, sealing the historic victory and sending the Philippines to Maldives as the group topnotcher.
“Turkmenistan was the one we needed to beat,” Weiss said. “We didn't want to qualify as the best second-placed team, we wanted to win the group.”
Cagara was optimistic about the Azkals’ chances next year in the Challenge Cup, where eight lower-ranked Asian teams will vie for a spot in the 2015 Asian Cup.
“During the past years, the team developed very well,” he said. “With the new guys, I think we can make a strong team.”
However, the Azkals will have to play their first Challenge Cup match next year without Younghusband and Rob Gier, who will both serve automatic suspensions after being booked for yellow cards.
North Korea topped last year’s edition, with Turkmenistan finishing second and the Philippines third.
SLIDESHOW OF THE MATCH: