Phil’s brace gives Azkals crucial win over India

Phil Younghusband (Mike Alquinto, NPPA Images)Phil Younghusband scored a goal in each half to power the Philippines to a 2-nil victory over India in the AFC Challenge Cup in Kathmandu, Nepal and keep alive the country's hopes of advancing to the semifinals.

The Loyola Meralco Sparks striker first found the back of the net in the 10th minute, gathering a header from brother James off a long throw-in from Jason Sabio and then turning for a left-footed shot that was just beyond the reach of Indian keeper Karanjit Singh. The goal gave the Azkals the early lead and helped set the tone for the rest of the match as the Philippines successfully rebounded from a 2-nil loss to North Korea.

The Blue Tigers, winners of this event in 2008, actually had the first meaningful chance of the match just five minutes in when Reisangmi Vashum's solid effort from the right flank flew just inches above the crossbar. India wouldn't get another quality attempt for the rest of the half, as the Azkals' back four, which now included Rob Gier, held firm. Meanwhile, Younghusband had another good chance in the 43rd after gathering a through ball from Chieffy Caligdong and getting a clear shot from within 10 yards. But the ball whizzed past the sidebar by inches and hit the side netting.

In the second half, the Blue Tigers stepped up their offense in search of the equalizer, knowing that a loss would officially eliminate them. They came close in the 68th minute, when Syed Nabi's free kick from the left flank found Raju Gaikwad in the penalty box, but the latter's header failed to find its mark.

The Azkals virtually sealed the win in the 73rd with a brilliant 1-2 by the Younghusbands that led to Phil's second goal. The play started with Misagh Bahadoran, who had come in for Caligdong in the 56th minute, finding Phil, who passed it to his right to James. James one-touched the ball back to his brother, who was already slipping past his defender. Phil controlled the pass and only had Singh to beat, and he easily slotted the ball into the right side of the net for his 20th international goal for the Philippines.

The Blue Tigers nearly pulled one back in the 87th minute when the Azkals defense uncharacteristically left Nirmal Chetri unmarked with Neil Etheridge out of position. But his shot veered to the left and out, preserving a much-needed two-goal advantage for the Philippines.

The Azkals played more possession ball and less long ball against India, patiently building up their attack through short passing, only going for long passes once in a while. And although Phil was the man of the match with his brace, the rest of the team deserved praise for their solid play all throughout.

The victory was a major milestone for the Philippines, this being the first time the country has beaten India in international football. But although the 2-0 scoreline was impressive, a third goal would have given the Azkals more breathing room as they head into a knockout match against Tajikistan on Tuesday, with the winner joining North Korea in the semifinals.

As things stand, the Philippines and Tajikistan both have three points on one win and one loss each, and are also identical in goal differential, that is both have scored two goals and conceded two goals. A third goal against India would have given the Azkals a one-goal advantage, meaning they could have advanced with a draw against Tajikistan. Now, if the two sides play to a draw on Tuesday, the winner will be decided via a penalty shootout.

Tajikistan won the inaugural Challenge Cup in 2006 and are currently ranked 145th in the world, 11 notches higher than the Philippines.

In the other bracket, host Nepal crashed out after absorbing a shock 1-nil loss to Maldives. Palestine and Turkmenistan lead the group with four points each and are both favored to advance.

Coach Hans Michael Weiss made two changes in his starting eleven, with Caligdong getting the nod in place of Bahadoran and Gier replacing Marwin Angeles. He also made Paul Mulders more of an attacking midfielder, and to give way to Gier in the back line, placed Juan Guirado in a defending midfield position. Angeles later came in for Angel Guirado in the 80th minute.

Weiss, quoted by goalnepal.com, said after the match that he was happy with the result, but felt his team could have played a little better.

"There are some players who are adjusting with altitude problem and jet lagged," he told the website. "The team played much better in the second half. I was not happy at half time because the boys hadn't played good game."

E-mail: sid_ventura@yahoo.com. Twitter: @Sid_Ventura

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