The Philippine Azkals survived some anxious moments in the final minutes to hang on for a 3-2 win over Fiji in their international friendly Thursday night at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
The Azkals, who were using this game to build up for their crucial AFC Asian Cup Qualifier against Tajikistan on Tuesday, were comfortably ahead 3-0 heading into the match's last 20 minutes. But the Bula Boys, as the Fiji national football team is known, suddenly came to life with two late goals and threatened a few times to force a draw. But the Azkals hung tough to get the win in front of their home crowd.
"I think it was a good training session for us," Azkals coach Thomas Dooley said. "Playing against some fast forwards, playing against a team that can pick it up like that."
Misagh Bahadoran had the match's first clear attempt in the 16th minute, but his strike was off to the left by a few inches. Just moments later, Manny Ott's strike from inside the box was brilliantly saved by Fiji keeper Epeli Loaniceva.
The Azkals broke the ice in the 30th minute courtesy of a penalty kick from Phil Younghusband after Bahadoran was fouled inside the box. It was the 49th international goal for the Azkals skipper.
Simone Rota came very close to doubling the lead in the 43rd after his attempt from the right flank hit the left post and bounced very near the goal line. Loaniceva gathered the ball and play resumed, although some Azkals argued with the referee insisting that the ball had bounced on the goal line.
The Azkals brought in five substitutes to start the second half, with Dylan De Bruycker, Sean Patrick Kane, Nick O'Donnell, Hikaru Minegeshi and James Younghusband taking the pitch. In the 53rd minute, Minegeshi doubled the score with a solo run and shot from close range. Eleven minutes later, Kevin Ingreso was at the right spot at the right time, gathering a rebound off a block from Loaniceva to rifle in a brilliant long-range left-footed screamer that made it 3-0.
Then Fiji started making things interesting.
A failed clearance by O'Donnell resulted in an easy tap in by Ame Votoniu in the 74th minute to cut the Azkals' lead to 3-1. Then in the 81st, O'Donnell fouled a Fijian player inside the box, and Roy Krishna converted the resulting penalty kick. What seemed like a safe three-goal lead was not just down to 3-2.
The Bula Boys pressed hard for the equalizer in the last minutes of the match, but they ran out of time as the Azkals' defense held firm despite some shaky moments.
"Defensively we didn't do a good job, in the transition from offense to defense," Dooley said about the two late goals conceded. "It was just too slow, and that's what we have to change. We know that if we play like this against Tajikistan, it won't be enough."
The Azkals need only a draw against Tajikistan next week to qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. If ever it would be the first time the Philippines will qualify.