The Philippine Azkals showed that the future is bright for the national men's team after a 2-1 comeback win during a friendly against Afghanistan on Tuesday night at the Rizal Stadium - where both goals were delivered late in the second half by a pair of youngsters.
The win made up for a disappointing draw against Chinese Taipei three nights ago where the Azkals conceded the equalizer just two minutes before the final whistle. Tuesday's match also showcased Jens Sebastian Rasmussen, as perhaps the next great Azkals striker, and Santi Rublico, as the most promising teenage talent in the Azkals pool.
Afghanistan took a 1-0 lead in the 64th minute after Omid Popalzay's volley from close range eluded Philippines goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and bounced off the crossbar into the net. Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss substituted the 21-year-old Rasmussen for the 18-year-old Rublico in the 69th minute to give the team more offense.
The Hobro forward didn't disappoint with a brilliant solo effort in the 74th minute that saw him outrunning the entire Afghan back line and slotting home the equalizer with a left-footed roller into the far post.
It was one of the most impressive goals in recent Azkals history and underscored Rasmussen's potential as a striker. The goal brought his senior team total to five in just five international caps.
"I had Rasmussen on my mind because I think he can give us something different, which he proved," Weiss said. "He's a shy guy. He's a big boy but he's very shy and he needs some time to be prepared. I hope today is a confidence boost for him."
Seven minutes later, 24-year-old defender Christian Rontini pushed the Azkals ahead with a header off a cross from Bienve Marañon which he celebrated by doing the Siuu.
Rontini, a product of the Azkals Development Team who also saw action in the 2019 Manila Southeast Asian Games and the 2021 Hanoi SEA Games, said the goal ranked right up there among his best.
"This is my first goal for the national team," Rontini said. "It's a different level. It's something that all players dream. You always dream to score for the national team."
The Azkals should have put this to bed in the first half after dominating possession. By allowing the game to stay close, Afghanistan's confidence grew and finally broke through in the second half. That the Azkals battled back was a testament to the changing attitude on this team.
"It wasn't a beautiful game because we were a bit cautious and we were intimidated by the physicality of the opponent," Weiss said. "It's actually what I wished from our side. At the end of the day, in Germany we say it was a 'dirty win'. You win a game despite adversity or despite the problems that were there. For us, it was fantastic. I think we should have won in Taipei, which was the better game of the two.
"I'm obviously very happy. It gives us the confidence for the next level in October (for the World Cup qualifiers)."
If this match had been held even just a few months ago, the Azkals would likely have folded after falling behind. It's something that Weiss has been trying to address since reassuming his post. He's enlisted help from an old friend -- the lone remnant on this current team from the Azkals' glory days of 12 years ago.
"I just want to change something" said Etheridge, who first debuted for the Azkals 15 years ago. "I've felt like for the last five years we did have a losing mentality. I felt like we accepted mediocrity, and I wanted to come in. And Coach has allowed me to bring this mentality where it's win at all costs. ...
"Like Coach said, we could have rolled over after we conceded 1-nil. But we didn't. I'm trying to be team captain both on the field and off the field, and we need to fight together."