CEBU CITY – Marwin Angeles scored the game-winner, but Eduard Sacapano’s heroic efforts in goal did not go unnoticed in the Philippines’ narrow 1-0 victory over Singapore in a friendly at the Cebu City Sports Center here.
On a night when international football rolled into the Queen City of the South for the first time, Sacapano was a virtual wall in between the posts, his first-half penalty save sparking a lively and remarkable Azkals’ performance in the final 45 minutes.
It was the final match for the Azkals’ preparations for the Suzuki Cup kicking off Nov. 24 when they meet Thailand in Bangkok. But for this football-loving city, it seemed so much more than that.
The Azkals got a loud ovation as they entered the pitch before kickoff in another watershed moment for the sport in the country. For months, organizers led by officials of the Cebu Football Association, here had worked tirelessly for a smooth-sailing staging. People came in droves, filling up the grandstand with the crowd estimated at 7,000.
The Azkals rewarded them with a brilliant display.
Coming in as a substitute at halftime, Angeles struck from close range in the 54th minute for the lone goal of the match as the Azkals, with a less experienced side compared to the one that visited and beat Singapore, 2-0, last September, constantly tormented the Lions with their fluid attacking play in the second half.
With orders to push forward, Angeles, who usually operates deep at midfield, was at the right place at the right time to tuck home a misdirected shot from Patrick Reichelt, who got on the end of a Phil Younghusband cross at the far post.
Benefitting from his squad’s blistering display, Denis Wolf also had a couple of headed chances – one that was saved by Hayrulnizam Juma’at and the other just denied by the crossbar nine minutes from time.
There was solidity and composure at the backline as each and every Lions attack was thwarted with Sacapano coming up with a heroic effort. The centerback pairing of Rob Gier and Juani Guirado hardly gave the Lions’ strikers time on the ball.
The Bago City-born goalkeeper foiled a penalty from Shi Jiayi in first half stoppage time, before producing a couple of stops to deny Shahdan Sulaiman and Shaiful Esah on free kicks.
Sacapano’s performance came on the day news broke that first-choice keeper Neil Etheridge will be unavailable for the Suzuki Cup in Bangkok, Thailand from Nov. 24-30. Germany-based goalkeeper Roland Muller is also doubtful for the tournament.
“I’m happy the boys fought so bravely, especially the man sitting next to me,” said Azkals coach Michael Weiss, referring to Sacapano, at the postmatch press conference. “A draw would have been a deserved result but we will take it. This gives us a lot of confidence heading into our match against Thailand.”
Weiss said the Armyman’s performance did not come as a surprise to him. “It was not beyond my expectations but beyond probably of other people. I know that hes made good progress the past year,” he said. “If Etheridge or Muller will come to the Suzuki Cup, it will be a big plus, but with Ed (Sacapano), we are in good hands.”
Even Singapore coach Raddy Avramovic was impressed with Sacapano. “I think the goalkeeper has done absolutely well. At the start of the match, I told my players that the keeper did not have much experience so we must test him but he did really well,” the veteran Serbian coach said.
The Azkals were on the backfoot early on with the visitors probing and testing Sacapano from range, while Qui Li and Shi Jiayi worked the flanks to create openings.
It was on the counter-attack where the Azkals looked dangerous as Denis Wolf and Patrick Reichelt – teammates at Global FC – combined well up front together with Demit Omphroy.
Reichelt was causing the Singapore defense fits with his pace and drive and he drew an early booking from central defender Safuwan Baharudin. The Azkals struggled to create clear chances though with Wolf managing just tamed effort from a tight angle on the right in the 42nd minute just moments after Chris Greatwich sent a shot over from outside the box.
On the other end, the Lions were having their way on an Azkals defense that sat deep with Shi, Qui Li and Khairul Amri all getting opportunities. The best of those chances came on the head of Amri, who could only shoot wide off a cross from Shi in the 30th minute.
Underscoring the depth of his side, Weiss made three changes at halftime with Phil and James Younghusband and Marwin Angeles replacing Chieffy Caligdong, Jeff Christiaens and Greatwich.
Less than 10 minutes later, the changes paid off with Angeles’ first senior goal that sent the crowd into ruptures.
“It was a very hard fought victory,” Weiss said. “I think the substitutes changed the match in the second half.”