With goals from Nasser, Nada and Al-Ibrahim Kuwait showed their class to stamp their authority on the two-legged tie and all but qualify for the next round of World Cup qualification. Pushing forward and looking to upset the hosts, the Philippines came close twice before a swift counter-attack ended with Al Sulaiman heading past Etheridge to put the hosts in front in the 16th minute. The Philippines then held Kuwait at bay until the 68th minute when a goalmouth scramble first resulted in a good save from Neil Etheridge before Masaed Neda poked in the rebound. Tiring, the Philippines then conceded a third when Al Ebrahim wriggled past a defender to make space for himself and shoot low past Etheridge to seal the victory.
Deflated by the three goal margin many people began to lose hope in the Azkals. However while many others are focussing on what went wrong and the mistakes, it may be better for Philippine football if we focussed on the positives of the game, the way the team has improved and bringing in some realistic expectations to the game. Some new fans, for example, have denounced the team for losing not understanding the nature of football and how big a task was set before the team.
Kuwait, ranked 102 in the FIFA rankings, were ranked in the top 25 teams in the world just over a decade ago, 24th in 1998. Alongside teams like England, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Netherlands, the top 25 teams in the world are there because of thriving decades of football culture, huge investment and patience. Kuwait’s gradual decline in the rankings is not so much due to a lack of skill or quality players but rather failing to reach the potential they have. Leading up to the match, a 6-0 thrashing of Lebanon and victories over Iraq and Saudi Arabia show their class. Kuwait were also the first team to win the Gulf Cup of Nations in 1970 and are the reigning Champions after winning again in 2010, their tenth title out of the twenty attempts. Winning the tournament exactly half the number of times it’s been contested, against teams such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, Kuwait are clearly one of the best teams in the region. Expectations must remain realistic and we must always believe in our team – they are working hard and moving in the right direction… their improvement thus far has been nothing short of amazing.
The match itself began with Kuwait dominating possession in an almost Barcelona-esque fashion; short passes in the opponent’s half, retaining possession and waiting for an opening before swiftly striking. With their own variation of the 4-5-1 formation they looked to press forward and exploit the whole of the pitch with quick passing and good ball control taking the Philippine players out of position. With Kuwait pressing forward early it was actually the Philippines who came closest to scoring first as Phil Younghusband was sent through one-on-one with the keeper who made a terrific save to keep the ball out and the scores level. From the resulting corner Angel Guirado rose magnificently to get to the ball first and rattled the crossbar but as Kuwait regained possession when the ball bounced off the woodwork, with the Philippines out of position, their counter-attack ended when Al-Enezi supplied the cross as Yousef Nasser stole in front of his marker to head past Etheridge in goal.
Kuwait taking the lead stunned the crowds, both in Kuwait and in the Philippines. With the Inquirer, through top football journalist Cedelf Tupas, reporting that there were more Philippine fans than Kuwaitis in the stadium itself. Fifteen minutes later Phil Younghusband had another chance as Angel Guirado played him in on the 31st minute. With several defenders close by he elected to shoot early from just over 20 yards out and the ball looked destined for the top of the goal after he caught it sweetly but al-Khaldi in the Kuwaiti goal pulled off a fantastic save, touching the ball onto the crossbar. Few keepers could have reached that and the Philippines were unlucky not to equalise. Despite two fantastic saves, however, his performance is slightly overshadowed from a Philippine perspective by his blatant cheating, feigning injury and time-wasting. He did, though, keep out the Philippines magnificently, when an away goal would have meant so much. The Philippines were just inches away from scoring on three occasions.
The half-time whistle blew with no other clear cut chances as the Azkals were tenacious in defence and chased the ball down vigorously, last ditch challenges from both centre-backs preventing Kuwait from scoring on numerous occasions. After the break, however, the Azkals failed to carve out another clear goal-scoring opportunity. Looking to play the ball around the defence Kuwait linked up well and one-two passes regularly fashoined them space behind the holding midfielders of Ott and De Jong.
The Azkals defence stood strong until the 68th minute when another Kuwaiti corner ended in a goalmouth scramble and a goal. As the ball swung in from the left, it bounced off an Azkal defenders and looked like it would be an own goal until Etheridge managed a good block. Kuwaiti defender Mesaed Nesa fought and wrestled with the Azkals’ defence on the floor in the scramble and managed to poke the ball into the goal as Etheridge was recovering. It was a very scrappy goal but it gave Kuwait a two goal cushion and it was the 28 year old Nesa’s teammate at Al Qadsia FC, Fahad Al Ebrahim, who scored the third, playing it round one defender and exploiting the lack of pressing defence to hit the ball just outside the area and score in the bottom left corner of the goal six minutes before time. There was still time for Neil Etheridge to make a brilliant finger tip save from a header on another Kuwaiti corner to keep the margin at three goals in injury time. With several other decent stops he can proud of his performance despite the three goals conceded.
While the Azkals didn’t deserve to win the game, Kuwait dominated possession and fashioned 20 attempts at goals to the Philippines’ 7, three-nil flatters Kuwait. Losing is not a sign the Azkals are beaten and that something went wrong, however, that result was expected in all footballing communities but to put up such a battling performance and to be rightly called unlucky not to have scored themselves certainly does show the progress the team has made while even missing captain Aly Borromeo and playmaker Stephan Schrock.
Qualification now is unlikely. Needing to win 3-0 to force extra-time or to win by 4 goals to qualify the Philippines have a difficult task considering Kuwait haven’t lost by that margin since January. That was a 3-0 loss to Qatar, who are ranked 94th in the world, and who are really pressing to make a name for themselves in football given they will be hosting the 2022 World Cup. And so fans turn to July 28th at the Rizal Memorial Stadium to stand behind the team cheering them on… not because the Philippines have won but because they are performing so well and are improving so much against very strong sides.