KEVIN INGRESO and old reliable skipper Phil Younghusband provided the goals that mattered most as the men’s national team rallied past a hard-fighting Tajikistan, 2-1, to make history by advancing to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup United Arab Emirates 2019.
The match, watched by a delirious home crowd at the Rizal Memorial Stadium on Tuesday night, went tight from the get go resulting to a scoreless first half—until the Tajiks drew first blood after a crucial tackling error by Ingreso gifted the visitors a free kick, with Nazarov Akhtam beating Azkals goalie Neil Etheridge in the 64th minute.
And then it was the Filipinos’ cue to turn the tables around.
Ingreso made up for the error and headed the equalizer from Iain Ramsay’s beautiful cross that leveled the match at 1-1 in the 74th minute.
That equalizer served its purpose, as the Tajiks were never the same after that.
Younghusband did what he does best for the Azkals, nailing a penalty kick—his 50th in international play—in the 90th minute that sealed the result and sent the nationals and their fans to a roaring frenzy.
“It was an emotional game. It’s a difficult game when you know you don’t need to win the game. We were very cautious, as cautious as possible,” Younghusband said. “They had to win the game. But when they scored their first goal, I think that spurred us to play our best football because we knew we needed to attack,” he added.
“It showed the spirit of the Filipino people, the fighting spirit. Even when we’re down, we can bounce back and I think we showed and typified it today,” Younghusband added.
The Azkals finished on top of Group F with 12 points built around three wins and three draws, enough to give the country its historic first ticket to the AFC Asian Cup, which kicks off on January 5 next year in the United Arab Emirates.
“I made the mistake, it was a clear foul. I was down for a few minutes but my teammates pushed me up,” said Ingreso of what could have been a costly error.
But Ingresso returned to his elements and helped the Philippines book a historic march to the continental championship.
“We totally deserve the win with the way we fought,” Ingreso said.
“These are the guys who made history tonight, these are the best players we have at the moment in the Philippines, I am really, really proud of those guys,” Azkals American Head Coach Thomas Dooley said of his 23-man roster.
“I told them that in those four years that I’m here, this is the best team that we had,” he added. “We had the best training camp in four years. Everybody was laughing, energized, focused. The spirit in training was unbelievable, everything was positive.”
North Korea and Yemen also earned qualification places for next year’s Asian Cup.
Yemen, which played its home games in Qatar because of the ongoing conflict in the country, qualified for the tournament for the first time before even playing on Tuesday, because the Philippines beat Tajikistan in Manila in the same group.
North Korea advanced to the final tournament by beating Hong Kong, 2-0, at Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang.
The 2019 Asian Cup will have an expanded 24-team field, eight more than the previous tournament.