Philippines Asian Cup destiny down to do-or-die match vs. Kyrgyz Republic
There were three parts to the Philippines plan of action at the Asian Cup.
The first was to not lose to South Korea by many. The second was to take a point from China. The third was to defeat the Kyrgyz Republic in the final Group C showdown. With four of the six third-placed teams going through to the last 16, that would almost certainly be enough. As it stands, three points may well do.
The plan started well. The Azkals worked their socks off in Dubai against South Korea, fighting and running for everything. It took a well-taken second-half goal from one of Asia's most in-form strikers Hwang Ui-jo to settle the 1-0 win.
The highly-fancied Taeguk Warriors were impressed with an opponent that had been dismissed in Seoul.
"We knew they would work hard and be tough to break down," Korea coach Paulo Bento said. "But they had a really good shape and they played intelligently.
"It was a very tough opening game for us."
It was expected to be even tougher for China. There was confidence back in Manila and also in Abu Dhabi that the second phase of the plan would be successful and the required point would be taken. After all, China are not regarded to be as strong as Korea and their form going into the Asian Cup was far from great.
Marcello Lippi's men were dreadful in the first half of their opening match against the Kyrgyz Republic, and only levelled the scoreline after the break thanks to a goalkeeping howler that is unlikely to be matched in this tournament, and many more to come. When the game ended in a 2-1 win for Lippi's side, there was a lot of Chinese relief and hope in the Philippines.
Yet it never really happened for the Azkals when they faced China in the United Arab Emirates capital. With stalwarts Phil Younghusband and Manny Ott on the bench, Sven-Goran Eriksson's men started well. Before Wu Lei opened the scoring with a sublime chip from the edge of the area on the half-hour, the Southeast Asians had looked comfortable.
The Chinese had managed to create just one chance and the men in white, roared on the majority of a vocal 16,000 crowd, had got themselves into promising positions. The team had considerably more possession than in the first game, without being able to find the right final ball or a cross into the area of enough quality. China's defence could have been tested more.
Once the first goal -- the first of two beauties from Wu Lei -- went in, it was a different matter. The 5-4-1 that served the team so well against Korea was not conducive to chasing the game against a Chinese side that was happy to sit back and deal with the balls into the area. Wu Lei reminded the Azkals that they were not at the AFF Cup any more. The Asian Cup is a step up and, while the 3-0 scoreline was a little harsh, it showed that the Philippines still have some way to go.
It was always likely, then, that the equation going into the final game was going to be simple: the Azkals must beat the Kyrgyz Republic. The difference between the reality and the plan is that with zero points on the board, a win may not be enough for the Philippines for a place in the second round. Four points would have been almost certain to be one of the four best third-placed finishers in the six group. With three it depends very much on other results and luck.
"We always play to win and we are looking at Kyrgyzstan now," Azkals midfielder Manny Ott told ESPN. "Last time we played them we won 2-1 and we will be looking at a repeat of that."
More than a single goal victory would be good as the battle for the four best third-place spots could be tight. In Group B, both Syria and Palestine have a point each and still have to face Australia and Jordan respectively. It is quite possible that both West Asian teams could end up with less than three. In Group D, both Vietnam and Yemen are pointless. The Southeast Asians will be expected to take the three points and then goal difference comes into play. Then Lebanon and North Korea as well as Oman and Turkmenistan are also pointless. It gives encouragement.
"There is hope but there is a small hope," said Eriksson after the China loss.
If the Philippines win on Wednesday then there may be a little more than the Swede suggests. For the Philippines, the Asian Cup is not yet over.