By Jonas Terrado
BACOLOD CITY — Neil Etheridge didn’t disappoint in his national team return and the Philippine Azkals held Asian powerhouse China to a scoreless draw Tuesday in the FIFA World Cup/Asian Cup second round qualifiers at the Panaad Stadium here.
The veteran goalkeeper provided stability all throughout while coming through with key saves in the final minutes, giving the Azkals a hard-earned draw and the country’s best result against China since a 2-1 win in the 1919 Far Eastern Games.
“It was a massive team performance,” said Etheridge, deflecting credit for the performance that earned him Man of the Match honors.
Etheridge’s presence enabled the Philippines to stay third place in Group A with four points while ending an 18-month frustration against China that saw them lose by a combined scoreline of 13-1.
The two friendlies sandwiched by one match in the Asian Cup during that period saw the Azkals missing the services of Etheridge due to commitments with Cardiff City.
He was also missed in the first two games of the qualifiers last month against Syria and Guam due to a hamstring injury.
China came into the match as heavy favorites to leave this city easily with the maximum three points, especially after a 7-0 thumping of Guam last week.
But Etheridge and a steady backline of starters Alvaro Silva, Mikel Baas, Carli de Murga, Daisuke Sato and Martin Steuble, and later subs Luke Woodland and Amani Aguinaldo were able to hold the front for the Azkals despite relentless attempts by the visitors.
Etheridge would later played the starring role, stopping attempts by China talisman and Espanyol striker Wu Lei and team captain Junmin Hao, much to the dismay of a large group of traveling supporters.
The Azkals had chances to score in the second half but long-range attempts by Mark Hartmann in the 53rd and substitute Angel Guirado before stoppage time went straight to the gloves of China goalie Yan Jun Ling.
“We are satisfied with the draw, we are pleased with the performance but we wanted to win. We felt at the end of the game, there were chances by both teams to win,” said Azkals coach Scott Cooper, echoing the sentiments of designated boss Goran Milojevic.