The Philippine Azkals ended the second round of their joint FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers with a frustrating 1-1 draw against the Maldives. Despite the result, there are a lot of positives to take away from their campaign.
The Azkals finished in third place with 11 points after eight games played, with the highlight being the 0-0 draw against China last October 2019. This is the highest point total the Philippines has ever garnered, edging out the 10 points earned for the 2018 edition of the World Cup qualifiers.
The Filipinos also saw a number of new faces take the stage, young guns now ready to carry the torch once the grizzled veterans start slowing down.
All in all, there are a lot of positive takeaways as the Azkals come home from Shahraj. Here are some more of them:
1. Stephan Schrock is an ageless wonder
Philippine team captain Stephan Schrock stole the show after the final whistle in their 3-0 victory against Guam, gathering the team and letting them know they weren't good enough even after the victory.
The following match, Schrock played like a man possessed and tried to put the Azkals on his shoulders with his activity level for all 90 minutes. It was clear the Azkals veteran chose to lead by example - in addition to his stinging barks at friend and foe alike - to help his team across the line.
At 34 years young, Schrock continues to defy human biology and is happy terrorizing opposing defenders. Credit his work ethic, the care he puts into maintaining his body, his fearlessness in his game, and his desire to make sure each and every one of his teammates take the fight to the next level alongside him.
2. The up-and-comers get invaluable experience
Perhaps the biggest talking point during the Azkals' trip to the United Arab Emirates was the introduction of several new faces into the lineup and the younger players gaining international experience.
Jefferson Tabinas and Oliver Bias, in particular, stood out to Filipino fans as future mainstays. Despite their young age, Tabinas, 22, and Bias, 19, gave reason for excitement for the Azkals' youth movement as they showcased the talent and composure to help the national team's level of play.
Azkals fans also got to see extended minutes for Jarvey Gayoso and Mark Winhoffer, both of whom had the majority of their football development right in the Philippines. The two, as well as Mar Diano, keep paving the path young and ambitious local footballers could take to crack the Azkals lineup.
Indeed, the homegrown talent displayed relative inexperience compared to their foreign-based peers, but with exposure to high-level competition such as this, the gap could, would, and should close sooner than later.
3. The Philippine Azkals' level of play continues to rise
Though missing a landmark victory to celebrate in this campaign, the Philippine Azkals are going into the next round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers knowing they have gotten much better.
As already mentioned, this is already the highest point total for a Filipino team at this stage of the competition. While it is disappointing the Azkals will not progress to the next round of the World Cup qualifiers, they achieved their goal of directly making it to the next stage of the Asian Cup qualifiers.
The Philippines could also argue that had the players who were initially called up made it to the U.A.E., they could have been celebrating a clean sweep of their games.
Despite the absence of potential bigname debutants like Raphael Obermair, Gerrit Holtmann, and naturalized forward Bienvenido Marañon, there is optimism that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg with regard to how good the Azkals could be.
In many ways, since the big names couldn't make it, the last three games felt like an audition to figure out who would best complement the reinforcements coming in. While Filipino fans would be divided on who has earned a spot moving forward, the Azkals management would surely be debating internally on who raised their stock high enough to feature in the future.
What is clear, though, is the expectations and the overall talent level of the Philippine Azkals is still on an upward trajectory.