By Ignacius Carell Cruz

PHOTO: Philippine Star

The much-awaited debut of Fil-German Gerrit Holtmann ends in a brutal 4-0 loss, and a bitter farewell to Asia’s biggest football tournament, as the Philippine Azkals were outclassed, out-skilled, and outperformed by 100th-ranked Palestine in the AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers at MFF Stadium in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on Tuesday.

Led by captain Mus’ab Al-Batat, the Palestinians asserted mastery over their familiar foes as their physical defense, passing, and attacking style drained the energy out of the ill-prepared Filipinos who only got their coach, Thomas Dooley, one week before the tournament.      

The floodgates opened for Palestine in the 30-minute mark of first half, where a Saleh Chihadeh header off Al-Batat’s cross cruised the group-leaders in front, 1-nil.

Eleven minutes later, the Azkals were caught sleeping defensively as they let an unmarked Tamer Seyam strike to the bottom right corner, sending home two goals for Palestine at the break. 

The Filipinos came out of the tunnel with more composure, however, a costly fumble from its captain, Neil Etheridge, gave Mohammed Yameen the edge to put the ball beyond the white line providing the Palestinians an enormous 3-0 lead.

Mahmoud Abu Warda’s left-footed strike that found the back of the net completed the football masterclass of Palestine, giving Etheridge no chance to save the Philippines from yet another humiliating loss. Her also assured his country the top spot in Group B by scoring four-goals-to-none.

The Azkals tried their best to salvage a goal in stoppage time by virtue of Jesse Curan’s beautiful cross to Jose Porteria, probably the best chance at goal the Azkals had the entire game, but was poorly headed out to a goal kick. 

The Filipinos will miss the AFC Asian Cup next year in China after dropping to sixth place in the standings for second-placers, no thanks to victories from neighboring countries Indonesia and Malaysia in their respective groups. 

What went wrong

In the entire game, the Philippines stuck with its strategy of patient and tactical passing which was actually successful against the gritty Palestinians as they dominated with 57% ball possession. 

But team chemistry spelled doom for the 133rd-ranked Azkals, who wasted golden opportunities after another through its inability to convert scoring chances, especially for Holtmann, as seen in Palestine’s 12-4 advantage in shots on-target. 

Palestine will boast a perfect record after the qualifiers, securing all nine points with a massive goal difference of +10, to enjoy its third straight Asian Cup qualification.

The Philippines, meanwhile, will try to wake up from this abysmal performance and search for its old glory that brought them to its first-ever Asian Cup stint last 2019 as Dooley takes over as the man on the helm.

Edited by Quian Vencel Galut