The Philippine Azkals weren’t joking when they said they haven’t played their best in the AFC Challenge Cup here.
Delivering another performance to remember, the Azkals humbled an old conqueror in Turkmenistan, 2-0, Saturday night to reach the semifinals of the prestigious tournament that stakes a berth in the AFC Asian Cup next year.
Roland Muller proved brilliant on goal, Phil Younghusband enhanced his big-match reputation with an exquisite strike and Patrick Reichelt, who just early this month felt heartbreak against a Turkmenistan side in another tournament, put the icing on the cake on a superb display before a huge Filipino gallery at the National Stadium here.
With the victory, the Azkals claimed top spot in a tough Group B with seven points. Afghanistan also made it to the next round after finishing with five points following a scoreless draw against Laos in Hithadhoo Stadium.
A showdown with host Maldives in the semifinals is slated Tuesday night, while Afghanistan face Palestine in the other last four battle.
Muller produced a string of saves to keep the Azkals in the game in the first half, before Younghusband delivered a moment of magic to put the Filipinos on their way to an epic win against the same team that booted them out of the tournament two years ago in Nepal.
Muller spectacularly denied Aleksandr Buliyov from the penalty spot in the 42nd minute after a dubious penalty call on Simone Rota.
Reichelt who came in just after 20 minutes when Ruben Doctora went off injured, earned the free kick that Younghusband took beautifully. The ball got just enough swerve to go beyond the wall and crept into the bottom corner, sparking wild celebrations from the pro-Filipino gallery.
The Azkals reverted to a counter-attacking style, wary of the threat posed by a big and physical Turkmenistan side. And it was well-worked counter that gave them the second goal.
A quick switch of play to the left gave Martin Steuble time and space to cross for a surging Reichelt who flew in with his right foot to finish in the 73rd minute. It was Reichelt’s second goal of the tournament after his header in the 2-0 victory over Laos.
The loss was a huge blow for a Turkmenistan side that has lost in the finals to North Korea in the last two Challenge Cup tournaments.
For the Azkals, it was sweet revenge and keeping their hopes alive of reaching the Asian Cup in Australia next year.