Shahril Ishak easily wins my Man of the Match plum. Singapore's attacking mid / striker created the most problems for the Azkals on Saturday. There was a shot in the 26th minute that was wide off a feed from Aleksandar Duric. Then the neat little service to Mustafic Fahruddin a few minutes later that Fahruddin poked wide. Ishak danced around the defense in the 53rd minute and offered up a delightful cross to Duric that the big veteran couldn't convert.
The shifty Ishak, Singapore's #17, has pace, cunning, and a great nose for the right pass. He's scored four times in this Suzuki Cup and will likely give Michael Weiss a few sleepless nights between tonight and Wednesday.
Where was the Philippine midfield? There just wasn't enough link-up in the center of the pitch for the Azkals. Jason De Jong was not himself and was yanked at the half for Marwin Angeles. Paul Mulders had little influence. Patrick Reichelt had an effective game in the left wing, with James Younghusband working hard on defense on the right. But there was precious little going on down the spine.
In one moment I swear I saw the team in what looked like a 4-1-1-4 formation. That can't be right.
In a game like this, we missed someone like Anto Gonzales, who can break down defenses with his vision and touch. But the U.P. Fighting Maroons coach was cut from the squad and was in street clothes at the game.
Weiss has another midfielder at his disposal; Chris Greatwich. The Fil-Brit has not had a minute of playing time in this Suzuki Cup. Unless there is some fitness issue that we don't know about, it may be time for him to get some burn this Wednesday.
All I know is that something has to change. The Philippines played too much uncultured long-ball Football for my taste. But credit the Singaporeans for asphyxiating the Pinoy midfield with their high pressure marking.
The return of Jerry Lucena on Wednesday in Singapore might help matters.
The Philippine defense didn't concede, but there were some harrowing moments. In the 17th minute Khairul Amri collected an inch-perfect long pass from Daniel Bennett and beat Rob Gier in a footrace. Fortunately for the Philippines his shot was saved by Ed Sacapano. There was a similar play soon after if I recall correctly.
Singapore coach Raddy Abramovic obviously likes his chances when his speedy attackers streak into the heart of the Philippine defense.
Later on in the game Juani Guirado gambled on a challenge and the result a couple of passes later was a shot on goal from Ishak that went wide. The play was reminiscent of his rash attempt at dispossessing an opponent in the Myanmar game that nearly caused a chance for the Burmese.
Then with four minutes to play Gier forked over the ball with a poor diagonal pass. Good thing he regrouped and thwarted the ensuing play.
The best performance in defense was Dennis Cagara, who was everywhere busting up Singaporean attacks. But he was so gassed deep in the match that Jeffrey Christiaens was sent to sub him. The Fil-Dane flew in on Friday, arriving at 4 p.m. He was in street clothes for the 5 p.m. practice. No doubt the long flight and jet lag affected him near the end after a great shift at left back.
This defense kept another clean sheet, which means for 270 minutes now the Philippines has not leaked in a goal in the Suzuki Cup. But the back four will need to step it up one notch if the Azkals intend to go for the win on Wednesday.
Should Chieffy Caligdong come in earlier? Weiss explained in the postgame press con that he feels Caligdong lacks the physical presence to play at this level, which is why he doesn't start. But it can also be argued that the fleet-footed left winger needs more time to get into the rhythm of the game to truly be effective. Perhaps on Wednesday he can come in with 30 minutes to go, and Reichelt can pace himself accordingly by going full blast for an hour.
Or, if Weiss wants a more physical left winger, he could insert Christiaens in that slot and then bring in Chieffy as a striker to spell Angel.
Singapore has the momentum and confidence now. They tied 0-0, but the Lions were the brighter side, especially in the first half. They pressed harder, stymied the Philippine midfield, and had more chances. For me Saturday's performance largely exorcises the ghosts of the last two losses to the Azkals. They have proven they can outplay the Azkals when it counts, they just couldn't score.
The Lions will have plenty of confidence going into Wednesday's game, which will be played in the Jalan Besar stadium. This smallish venue has a hard and crusty artificial surface that is much firmer than the one in Turf BGC. Phil and James played there in the Singapore Cup recently with Meralco, and their experience with its bounce will help.
It's Advantage Singapore at the moment, but there is no reason to lose hope. The Philippines can still grab an early away goal and put the Lions in a very deep hole on Wednesday, forcing them to score twice to progress.
Remember, Away Goals is the tiebreaker if the teams are level after another 90 minutes on Wednesday. If the second leg finishes in a non-goalless draw, the Philippines are in the finals. Another 0-0 and the tie goes into extra time and then penalties if another 30 minutes does not produce a score.
The Azkals, dating back to 2010, have now played 270 scoreless minutes in the Suzuki Cup semifinal stage. We need just one moment of magic to end that streak.
It was a night to remember for nine young men from Baguio. Through the kindness of Elmer Bedia and Baguio native Jimmy Eslao, both former national team players living in Australia, plus Craig Burrows, nine young men from Baguio FC were able to come all the way down from their hometown to watch the game. These Football enthusiasts, who won a recent Bahag Football tournament, were chaperoned by Virgie Tibaldo-Bungay, a former womens' national team player.
Naturally they all looked much better in their loincloths than me. When we walked to our seats we bumped into Chuck Severino in his dog suit. It makes for a pretty cool pic.
You can follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.
You can follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.