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Azkals beat Tajikistan, enter AFC semis

KATHMANDU – Holding a 2-1 lead over Tajikistan with 15 minutes left, the Philippine Azkals waited with bated breath for Japanese referee Ryuji Sato to blow the whistle and formalize their monumental semifinal appearance in the AFC Challenge Cup.

When it came, pandemonium erupted in the stadium located inside the Nepal Armed Police Force.

Ace striker and first goal scorer Phil Younghusband threw himself into the waiting arms of coach Michael Weiss. Captain Chieffy Caligdong emptied a bottled water on a jubilant team manager Dan Palami. James Younghusband waved a giant Phl flag. Filipinos in the crowd started singing Lupang Hinirang.

Better believe it, the Azkals are in the semis. Originally booked to fly back tonight, the Azkals now had to reset their return flight.

The lowest ranked team in the Group of Death, the Azkals finished with a 2-0-1 win-draw-loss slate for six points, good for second behind North Korea’s nine points (3-0-0). The Azkals will look to add further to their fairy tale run when they gun for a finals slot against Group A topnotcher Turkmenistan on Friday.

“It’s indescribable. I can’t say much. This is the first time we’ve been able to get to this tournament after having gone through pre-qualifier, qualifiers and now we’re in the semis. It’s unbelievable considering the kind of preparations we had,” said an ecstatic Palami.

Tajikistan drew first blood with a header by defender Alexey Negmatov in the first minute of first half injury time, a goal that was disputed by the Azkals in vain.

But that only fired up the Azkals after the break.

Phil Younghusband, fresh from a brace in their 2-0 win over India two days ago, slotted in the equalizer off a pass by Angel Guirado nine minutes into the second half.

Guirado, a man besieged by allegation of “sexual harassment” back home, delivered a header off a cross from the right that put the Azkals ahead at the 80th.

James Younghusband and the rest of the team swarmed over the Fil-Spanish midfielder, while a rainbow coincidentally appeared over the mountainous horizon.

“For me honestly this is not something based on coincidence. We have a group that works together, grows from match to match and I hope we can achieve a good result against Turkmenistan,” said Weiss.

Palami said this one’s bigger than the surprise semis qualification in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, which actually touched off the team’s popularity.

“The guys played like there’s no tomorrow. The results came naturally. With their talents, heart, one down in half, they got to come back. Unbelievable. I’m sure our kababayans back home who have watched this will feel as we do. It’s even bigger than the Suzuki Cup semis this is the Asian Challenge Cup already, a bigger stage,” said Palami.

“We’ve always dreamed but realistically, we were looking on just making a good account of ourselves here. This is far much better than what I’ve expected. This was our target, I’m glad we met it. Mabuhay Pilipinas,” he added.

Weiss said they would give the Azkals a break today, “perhaps go to Everest or something” before they tackle Turkmenistan head on. That’s altogether a different battle. (From