Azkals see off Maldives to march into Challenge Cup final

Philippines are through to the final of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup after claiming a 3-2 extra-time win over hosts Maldives in Tuesday’s semi-final clash at the Galolhu National Stadium.

Having taken the lead through Phil Younghusband’s 19th-minute opener, the Azkals were pegged back when Mohamed Umair equalised three minutes after the half-hour mark but reclaimed the lead thanks to Jerry Lucena’s close-range finish two minutes later.

However, the Maldivians hit back once more in the 66th minute through an Assadhulla Abdulla strike to force extra-time, but it was Philippines who went on to claim the victory after Chris Greatwich popped up with another important goal to win it for his side.

Thomas Dooley’s charges are now just one game away from booking their place at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup; with Palestine standing in their way after an Ashraf Nu’man doubled handed them a 2-0 win over Afghanistan in Tuesday’s other last-four clash.

Given the magnitude of the prize at stake, it was understandable that both Philippines and Maldives started the game adopting a cautious approach.

Yet as the half wore on, the match also began to open up and it was the Azkals who drew first blood in the 19th minute when Younghusband did well to bring down a high ball while holding off the challenge of Ibrahim Fazeel, before firing away a shot that was too hot for Mohamed Imran to keep out.

Stunned at falling behind, the Red Snappers sought to muster an immediate response and looked set to do just that in the 33rd minute when Ali Ashfaq broke into the box and was about to pull the trigger, only for Daisuke Sato to halt his progress with a fantastic last-ditch tackle.

But three minutes later, the scores were level after the a lapse in concentration from the visitors’ defence allowed Ali Fasir to flick a pass through to Umair, who ran onto it and sent a clever lob over Roland Muller and into the back of the net.

Nonetheless, the celebrations from the home crowd had barely died down when Philippines reclaimed the lead in the 38th minute after Sato burst down the left and drilled a cross into the box, where Lucena reacted well to nip in ahead of Amdhan Ali before blasting his shot past Imran from close range.

By now, the Azkals were aware that they were a mere 45 minutes away from moving one step closer to next year’s Asian Cup but six minutes after the restart, their opponents were presented with a golden opportunity to equalise when they were awarded a penalty after Ashfaq fell over inside the box as he attempted to force his way past Sato and Amani Aguinaldo.

Yet, for the second time in two games, Muller proved to be unbeatable from 12 yards as he produced an excellent save down low to keep out Fazeel’s spot-kick.

Still, there was little he could do to prevent the Maldivians from making it 2-2 six minutes after the hour mark after a corner whipped towards the near post by Umair was met by substitute Assadhulla, whose deft touch was deflected by Aguinaldo past Muller.

With time fast running out, both sides looked to summon one final push to claim the winner but neither was willing to budge.

Maldives looked destined to score four minutes from time after Ashfaq had carved apart the opposition defence with an unstoppable run but Rob Gier came to his side’s rescue with a crucial block, before Younghusband had a shot cleared off the line by Rilwan after racing onto Patrick Reichelt’s through-ball and rounding Imran in injury-time.

And in the final minute, Ashfaq had another chance to emerge as the hero for the home side when he found space inside the box, but his curling effort on his trusted left foot drew a terrific save from Muller before it could find the bottom corner.

In the end, with neither side able to find the winner in the 90 minutes, extra-time beckoned and Philippines were unlucky not to edge ahead again in the 103rd minute when Younghusband did well to bring down a long ball from Simone Rota before firing a shot away on the turn that forced Imran into a flying stop.

However, a minute later, the pivotal moment finally arrived as Younghusband’s right-wing cross fell to Reichelt and although he failed to connect cleanly with his shot, Greatwich – scorer of two crucial goals at the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup that saw the Azkals make the semi-finals for the first time in their history – was on hand to help the ball over the line from a yard out and win it for his side.

Philippines: Roland Muller, Simone Rota, Rob Gier, Amani Aguinaldo, Daisuke Sato, Jerry Lucena (Chris Greatwich 46’), Jason De Jong, Martin Steuble (Simon Greatwich 109’), Paul Mulders (Stephan Schrock 68’), Patrick Reichelt, Phil Younghusband.

Maldives: Mohamed Imran, Rilwan Waheed, Shafiu Ahmed (Mohamed Shifan 92’), Amdhan Ali, Mohamed Rasheed, Ibrahim Fazeel (Assadhulla Abdulla 62’), Mohamed Arif, Ashad Ali (Akram Abdul Ghanee 46’), Mohamed Umair, Ali Fasir, Ali Ashfaq.

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