Escape from Yangon: Azkals-Myanmar Postgame Thoughts

Porteria. UNAUTHORIZED USE OF THIS IMAGE IS PUNISHABLE BY LAW. Image copyright Bob Guerrero.

Ohjay Porteria cements his reputation as The Future of the Azkals. Last Thursday at the UFL launch presscon I bumped into Ohjay and we got to talking about Football, the American version.

Few know this but Ohjay was also an American Football placekicker and punter in high school. In fact I have been trying to get him to kick for the Philippine Punishers American Football team. He told me that he once hit a 60 yard field goal in practice, and his record in a game is 43 yards.

On Wednesday his 25 yard boot didn't just split the uprights, it also found the back of the net, gaining the Philippines an unlikely 1-0 road win.

Watch the strike on the replay from behind the goal to appreciate its beauty. It looks like Porteria might have caught the ball with the outside of the boot, because it swerves to his right. That is what spelled doom for the keeper. You can see him moving to his right before realizing that the ball is careening to his left. He tries to adjust but it's too late.

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Porteria can hoof the ball from distance but he also has a sublime touch. Plus his otherworldly dribbling skills are a nightmare for even the best defenders.

Porteria is still a teenager. We can expect a decade or more of his wizardry. And had he not been sidelined by dengue during the Suzuki Cup, who knows how far we could have gone.

Oh and one more thing: among all of the Azkals raised abroad, he reportedly is one of the best Filipino-speakers. But the Angeles twins might contest that.

Man of The Match award goes to Neil Etheridge. Porteria could get this award, but his head-scratching non-pass to a wide open Ian Araneta late in the game prevents me from handing it to him. It's ironic, since it was Araneta who assisted him for the goal.

Etheridge, on the other hand, came up large with two second-half stops, one a foot save against the momentum of his body, another a stretch-out blank.

The Fullham man's presence also seemed to intimidate the Myanmar attackers, since they were all too glad to shoot right at him all day long.

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It was a good result but not a great performance. Last weekend I was in Malaysia for the ONE FC Mixed Martial Arts card. I realized that MMA and Football have a lot in common.

In MMA you can aggress more, get more takedowns, and land more kicks and punches, but if you don't knock out or submit your opponent, you can still lose if your enemy exploits one small mistake and gets you into a Guillotine Choke. Then it's game over, and all your previous work is down the tubes.

That's what happened on Wednesday. Myanmar outshot the Philippines 14-8, and also had more shots on target, 9 to 5.

The home team also possessed the ball much better and their defense reduced Phil Younghusband to a non-factor.

As they say in Football, the scoreline flattered the Philippines. We were rescued by our terrific goalie and a singular moment of brilliance. But over the full 90 minutes, Myanmar showed a verve and confidence that was missing during the Suzuki Cup. They are a quality team lacking that one spark on offense.

The Azkal coaching staff has a philosophy in dealing with European-based Azkals, and it doesn't always work. Naturally when a European-based Azkal is free for a game, he starts. That's understandable, since these guys are pretty darn awesome.

But oftentimes that Azkal is unable to start at his natural position because someone else is there. Then the team likes to place him in whatever hole needs plugging.

Sometimes the strategy works, because these players are skilled and experienced enough to perform anywhere on the formation. Case in point: Stephan Schrock. He is really a right back when he plays for his club. But with the Azkals, he usually is positioned at attacking mid, where he has shone, like in the Singapore friendly last year, when he set up Phil for a score.

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But sometimes the strategy has less-than-stellar results, like last Wednesday night. With Carlie de Murga still not fit, Coach Weiss was without his first-choice right back. In comes Manny Ott, who has been a solid central midfielder for the team, but had previously not played at right back.

Ott struggled. There were massive holes in the right side that Myanmar came close to exploiting, especially in the first half. One felt that Myanmar sniffed the weakness on that flank and hammered at it mercilessly.

Perhaps Weiss could have instead selected a true right back for this squad and played him there?

It's a judgment call for the coach and it is hard to second-guess him. But I believe it's food for thought.

This game was a part of Myanmar's preparation for the SEA Games. The only team list I could find for Myanmar was on Wikipedia. And if the facts there are to be believed, Myanmar fielded a very young team. There are at least fourteen players 21 years old and under, possibly more, since not all the players had ages reported on the page.

Dan Palami said that after the Challenge Cup qualifiers, the Philippines will put greater emphasis on the U23 squad for the SEA Games. Myanmar, who is also in Challenge Cup qualifying in March, isn't waiting for that. They are going with a youth movement now.

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I hope that after the Challenge Cup, the U23 team is formed and gets lots of competitive games. I would like to see that team play in either the UFL Super Cup or the UFL Cup. Plus, I think playing many of those kids in full International Azkals games is an idea worth copying from the Myanmar playbook.

Myanmar lost to the Philippines on Wednesday. But they will be prepared should we meet them again on their turf in the SEA Games.

The Thuwanna stadium has a great pitch. The surface was lush, green and even, even at the goalmouths. It was the finest greensward the team had played on since the virgin Rizal Memorial grass in 2011. Pity the lighting of the place was very wanting, with shadows all over the place. But it made for a great stage for a surprising, and welcome win for the Azkals.

This wasn't the best game I saw today. Earlier in the afternoon I saw UP defeat DLSU in UAAP Men's Senior Football in a thrilling contest, 2-1 in Ateneo's Ocampo Field. It was the last game of the eliminations and the Maroon Booters, with the win, get themselves into a playoff for the twice-to-beat second seed against FEU and their staggeringly gifted striker, Jonjon Melliza. The Archers are the fourth seed in the Final Four, and Ateneo has the top seed after beating NU 3-0.

Jinggoy Valmayor scored twice, a gorgeous second-half volley, then a 91st minute winner that was achieved by the sheer force of his will. As the target man he took the ball and fended off several defenders to beat DLSU keeper Patrick Deyto.

The Final Four starts on Sunday, with the Finals, which will air on Studio 23, coming a week after.

For many, Philippine Football is the Azkals, full stop. But there is much more of the Beautiful Game to see in our country.

Follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.

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