By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
THE PHILIPPINES’ date with the AFC Asian Cup has to wait after the Azkals were held to a goalless draw by Nepal yesterday in a key Group F qualification game in Kathmandu.
Needing to secure the win to get the full three points that go with it and officially book a spot in the prestigious continental tournament, the Azkals instead need to have a favorable outcome in their home game in March next year to finally join the main draw of the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2019.
With the draw, the Philippines, sporting a record of two wins and three draws with nine points, is still on top of its grouping but for good measure, and to be safe, has to win in its final game against Tajikistan.
As per tournament format, the top two teams in each of the six groups in the third round of qualification advance to finals phase of the Asian Cup, joining 12 others teams which have already qualified previously.
The match started rough and physical, marked by multiple head collisions that momentarily halted play.
Each team had its chances to score a goal but none would be consummated en route to a goalless draw at the halfway point of the contest.
The host team came out aggressively on both ends to start the second half.
Nepal early on tested the defense of Azkals goalkeeper Neil Etheridge with some solid shots at a goal but the Cardiff City FC player proved to be up to the challenge each time.
Simone Rota gave the Azkals a good opportunity at breaking through but it was deflected in the 60th minute while the rebound by Phil Younghusband went wide.
Nepal maintained its aggressiveness thereafter just as Philippine coach Thomas Dooley made a couple of substitutions to give the team a different look.
With Nepal keeper Kiran Kumar Limbu hurting in the 70th minute, the Azkals tried to capitalize on it with a number of shots but they failed to connect off them.
The host team eventually managed to change keeper, sending in Bikesh Kuthu to replace Mr. Lumbu.
A series of headers in the 83rd minute by Daisuke Sato and Mike Ott gave the Azkals further chances at the goal but the Nepal defense was ready for them.
The two teams tried to desperately get the go-ahead goal for the remainder of regulation and in the four minutes of injury time, including Mr. Etheridge attempting a free kick at midfield, but no goals were to be scored as time expired.
As of this writing, Tajikistan (2-0-2) and Yemen (1-3-0), tied at second spot with six points apiece, were to do battle in Hisor, where a win would pull them to a tie with the Philippines.
The Azkals and Tajikistan match is set for March 27, 2018 at the Panaad Park and Football Stadium in Bacolod City.