The Philippine Azkals emerged winners, 3-2, against Oceanian team Fiji in an international friendly match held at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, Wednesday evening.
Phil Younghusband, Hikaru Minegishi, and Kevin Ingreso looked to have secured a comfortable win for the Philippines, only for Fiji to test their resolve late after collecting goals scored by Ame Votoniu and Roy Krishna.
The Azkals had the majority of the possession, yet they found it challenging to unlock the visiting team’s defense. It took 15 minutes for the home squad to bother Fijian keeper Epeli Loanicev,a who just saw Misagh Bahadoran’s strike sail off the mark. Smelling blood, Thomas Dooley’s players quickly followed it up with a Manny Ott shot accurate enough to force the Rewa goalkeeper to make a routine save.
Ranked lower than the Philippines, Fiji appeared content in staying compact behind the ball. For the majority of the match, everyone was behind for the Bula Boys. Armed with pace up front, the visitors looked to expose the Filipinos’ high line. They threatened to slice open the makeshift Azkals backline on two occasions in the opening half, with neither incident yielding zero rewards.
The Philippines saw their opponents’ tactics as an opportunity to maximize their superiority. Buoyed by the home support, the Azkals almost reflected their dominance when Iain Ramsay fired from the right flank. Having hit those rockets back in his days with Ceres-Negros, the FELDA United midfielder has these magical efforts in his locker. He tried to break the deadlock with one, only for Loaniceva to catch it easily, 25 minutes into the action.
In the next four minutes, the visitors began to approach the game more aggressively, primarily by using the wings in initiating attacks. While the Azkals were happy to see Ratu Nakalevu’s attempt go harmlessly wide, they also began to acknowledge that their foes were no pushovers.
As the game began to gradually open up, a defensive error committed by the visitors presented a huge chance for the Azkals to make their advantage count. Perak striker Bahadoran won a penalty for the Azkals after he was clumsily fouled inside the box. Skipper Younghusband stepped up to take the spot kick which he calmly dispatched, giving the Filipinos a deserved lead to take into halftime.
There could have been more before the break, but the visitors held firm to keep themselves within reach by the interval. It was important for them to maintain the gap narrow before the second half in order to keep the pressure on the hosts. Substitutes Krishna and Votoniu made their presence felt up top, with both players gaining sight of goal. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t able to find the back of the net before the hosts did.
Coming off the bench, Minegishi smashed his effort into the onion bag, eight minutes after the restart. His goal was soon followed by Ingreso’s wonderful strike just outside the box in the 61st minute. Things were looking rosy for the home side at that point. Little did they know that the Fijians had brought with them much more than what they’d shown in the first hour of the encounter.
Votoniu got his team on the board 16 minutes before time, capping off a quick attack after gaining possession in the middle of the park. Seven minutes later, Azkals keeper Nick O’Donnell kept the door open for the Bula Boys when he gave away a penalty. Wellington Phoenix forward Krishna made no mistake from 12 yards to make the last nine minutes of the match interesting.
Roles had switched approaching full time with Fiji sniffing an equaliser at the death. The Azkals’ resolve was tested in those moments. Ultimately, the men in white saw the game out emerging 3-2 winners in what is officially a warm up game for the all-important clash against Tajikistan in five days time.