Rapid Reaction: Palestine 0 : 0 Philippines

Starting XI (4-2-3-1):
Saidawi (C); Hijazi, Mahdi, Bahdari, Harbi; Wadi, Yousef (Salhe 87'); Amour (Jebreen 78'), Obeid, Nu'man(Abu Belal 68'); Alyan.

Pictures of the match available here thanks to our friends at pinoyfootball.com.

Let me start off by saying that the outpouring of support on Twitter from followers of Pinoy Football has been immense. In the past 24 hours our following has increased by nearly 40% thanks to passionate Azkal fans. A couple of years ago, the Philippines were regarded as a footballing non-factor. I can say that they are now very much a side (and a fan base) that should be taken seriously. They remind me of ourselves when we made our re-appearance on FIFA's stage. Everyone thought we would be whipping boys but we played with passion. Ramzi Saleh (much like Neil Etheridge) in goal kept us in games and we bloodied a couple of noses on the way. I wish the Azkals the best of luck and although we are almost assured of qualification (see below) I hope the Fursan lend the Azkals a helping hand. We also don't want to sneak into the Challenge Cup Finals we want to enter through the big gate (as the Spanish would say: A pasar por la puerta grande).

Recap: With Palestine already top the group, it was evident that Mousa Bezaz was not quite ready to throw down the gauntlet. His formation remained the same with the only change being the inclusion of Suleiman Obeid over Atef Abu Bilal to pull the strings in the attack. The first stanza was characterized by a very cautious approach from both sides but eventually gave way to a period of dominance for Al-Fursan. Ismail Amour, the most capped player in the side, gave the Azkal defence fits and he tested Fulham reserve goalkeeper Neil Etheridge on multiple occasions. Halfway into the first half the Jabal Al-Mokaber star hit the post as Etheridge saw his goal being laid siege to. Despite a peppering of shots, Etheridge was flawless on the day save for one mistake. Ashraf Nu'man caught Etheridge off his line an audaciously launched a 50 meter shot that went off the crossbar. The Azkals took that scare as a wake up call and started to come into the game in the final minutes of the first half.

The Azkals had surprised Myanmar two days ago with a furious start to the second half. But there was to be no repeat performance today. Palestine established a pattern in the opening period, allowing the Philippines to come forward, waiting for their attack to breakdown and exploiting the space behind them. Azkal manager Michael Weiß was aware of this and his team slowed down the pace of the game in the second half. Needing the three points more than their opponents, Weiß sent on Barsales with half an hour left. Philippines switched to a 4-4-2 formation and started to press, with the substitute, Barsales, failing to challenge Saidawi with a shot that came as result of a goalmouth scramble. As the match wore on neither team was carving out more than a series of half chances. Etheridge excelled in positioning himself to deal with the barrage of dangerous passes being played into and around his area. For their part, Palestine continued to play with one striker with Bezaz electing to keep Mohammed Shatrit on the bench.

What it Means: Palestine still control their own destiny heading into their final group game against Myanmar on Friday. Here are ALL possible qualification scenarios:

  1. Palestine Win. Simple, they win Group A on 7 points, no matter what happens with Bangladesh & Philippines.
  2. Palestine Draw + Bangladesh/Philippines Draw. Palestine win Group A on 5 points, Bangladesh clinches runner-up spot.
  3. Palestine Draw + Philippines 1 goal Win. Palestine Win Group A on 5 points thanks to a superior goal difference (+2). Philippines clinches second place also on 5 points and a goal differential of (+1). A 2 goal win for the Azkals could result in Palestine winning the group if they have scored more goals.
  4. Palestine Draw + Philippines 3 goal Win. Palestine qualifies as runner-up to Philippines.
  5. Palestine Draw + Bangladesh Win. Palestine qualifies as runner up.
  6. Palestine 1 goal Loss + Bangladesh/Philippines Draw. Palestine win Group A (4 points, +1 GD) by virtue of better goal differential. Bangladesh qualifies as runner up (4 points, 0 GD).

Negatives: Not being able to score an early goal. The chances were there and credit to Etheridge, he played fantastically well today. If Mark Schwarzer leaves in the summer, I could see Etheridge pushing current #2 David Stockdale for the starting job at Fulham.

Positives: Defensively, Palestine are very sound and its down to the late inclusion of Abdelatif Bahdari. The Philippines could not get past us and when they did Saidawi has proven himself a more than capable deputy for Ramzi Saleh (3 clean sheets in 5 caps). Bahdari provides Palestine with the sort of presence Ryan Nelsen provides New Zealand (They were whipping boys at the Confederations Cup without him, an undefeated team at the World Cup with him).

What's Next: Myanmar on Friday! (25/03/2011) 0900 GMT.