Azkals bag 3rd place

Sportsaholic

From the bottom eight to the top three.

The Philippine Azkals capped a stirring AFC Challenge Cup run with a 4-3 win over Palestine in their playoff for third place, securing the country's highest-ever finish in a FIFA-AFC tournament.

Phil Younghusband scored twice while brothers Angel and Luis Guirado added a goal each in a high-scoring affair between the two sides, a stark contrast to the goalless draw they produced in the qualifying round in Myanmar last year.

Coming off a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Turkmenistan in the semifinals last Friday, the Azkals took it to Al Fursan right from the opening whistle, with captain Chieffy Caligdong's header in the third minute immediately challenging Palestinian keeper Ramzi Saleh. Barely a minute later, a Caligdong pass found Younghusband, who dribbled his way through two defenders and launched a left-footed strike from close range that Saleh was unable to stop.

The Azkals should have gone up 2-0 in the 16th after Paul Mulders dispossessed the last Palestinian defender and had only Saleh to beat, but the keeper did well to parry the shot with his foot.

The Palestinians nearly drew level in the 19th when midfielder  Khader Yousef beat the offside trap but misfired on a strike from close range, the ball hitting the side netting. A minute later, Mohammed Mohammed's effort hit the crossbar as Palestine relentlessly pressure the Azkals' backline in search of the equalizer.

They finally found it in the 21st minute thanks to Abdelhamid Abuhabib, whose looping shot found the back of the net beyond the outstretched arms of Eduard Sacapano.

But Palestine had little time to celebrate as just three minutes later, Caligdong was fouled inside the penalty box, and Younghusband connected on the spot kick for his sixth goal of the tournament. Palestine came right back with another attack in the 27th, but Mohammed Samara 's volley was snuffed out by Sacapano.

Juani Guirado came close to making it 3-1 for the Azkals in the 34th, his shot from close range off a free kick just deflected away by Saleh. Brother Angel made no mistake, though, in the 42nd, when he gathered a good pass and attacked from the right flank to slot home a goal that made it 3-1.

The Azkals defended well for the first 20 minutes of the second half and seemed on their way to a comfortable victory, but a defensive lapse in the 67th minute saw Abuhabib with acres of space inside the box, and he easily beat Sacapano to narrow the lead to 3-2. But just like they did in the first half, the Azkals answered back almost immediately with one of their best goals of the tournament. Just two minutes after Abuhabib's goal, James Younghusband, back after being suspended against Turkmenistan, one-touched the ball and found Juani Guirado, and this time the elder Guirado could do no wrong as he beat Saleh with a well-placed strike to the far left of the net for his first international goal.

Palestine wouldn't go away, though, and another defensive miscue by the Philippines in the 78th minute gave Fahed Attal plenty of room to angle the shot properly and find the back of the net to make it 4-3. In the 82nd, Abuhabib was denied a hat trick after his long range attempt was on target but brilliantly punched out by Sacapano.

With time winding down, Saleh himself left his post to help out on a Palestinian corner kick, but he merely drew a yellow card for his efforts. Palestine would not get another good chance again, and the Philippines held on until the final whistle.

The win capped a long Challenge Cup journey for the Azkals, one that mirrored their steady rise in the Asian rankings. As one of the eight lowest-seeded Asian teams last year, the team had to go through the pre-qualifying phase, where they were pitted against Mongolia in February last year.

Before a capacity crowd in Panaad, the Azkals beat Mongolia, 2-0, on goals by Chieffy Caligdong and Phil Younghusband. In the second leg, they dropped a 2-1 decision but advanced on aggregate, 3-2. Then it was on to the qualifying stage in Myanmar in March 2011, where they walloped Bangladesh and drew with Palestine and Myanmar to finish second in their group and punch their ticket to the group stage in Nepal.

The Azkals found themselves grouped with the past three champions of this tournament in North Korea, India and Tajikistan, but after dropping a 0-2 decision to the defending champion Koreans, they waylaid India 2-0 and rallied from a goal down to beat Tajikistan, 2-1, to advance to the semifinals.

In the semis against Turkmenistan, the Azkals were 10 minutes away from a historic appearance in the finals, but the Turkmen pounced on two defensive errors to score twice in six minutes and shock the Azkals, 2-1.

The Philippines was the only team in Nepal that came from the bottom eight teams, so in effect the Azkals went from the bottom eight to the last eight, eventually finishing third.

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