Palestine were crowned the fifth and final AFC Challenge Cup champions last week, as they set their sights on their first major tournament appearance at the Asian Cup in Australia next year.
The final itself was a tantalising battle that many saw as a clash of styles. Palestine who hadn’t conceded all tournament mainly due to the rigid defensive partnership of Abdelatif Bahdari and Omar Jarun who were colossal for much of the tournament (until they were separated for the final) against a more adventurous attacking side in the Philippines who had flair in midfield from Stephan Schrock and on the wing in Patrick Reichelt while Phil Younghusband in attack was continuing on from his golden boot performance two years previous. The game itself was dominated by Palestine, who created five or six good chances through the great link up play of Ashraf Nu’man Al Fawaghra and Abdelhamid Abuhabib only to be denied by another great display by Philippino keeper Roland Muller. The pressure finally paid off in the second period, Nu’man taking his tally to four for the tournament with a wonderful curling free kick to send their fans into raptures. A decent showing by Philippines followed but it was Palestine’s defence again that came to the rescue and secured the crown’s destination was to the West Asian country.
Palestine’s progression has been impressive, often inventive but always solid. They ended the tournament without conceding a single goal and collecting all the final tournament player awards. They started the tournament comfortably, easing through the group stage at half pace, Abuhabib scoring in each of their victories over Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar. Eventual golden boot winner Nu’man picked up his first with a mazy solo run and finish to put to bed the Burmese. After a goalless draw with hosts Maldives, Palestine cruised to another comfortable win over Afghanistan in the semis, Nu’man the star once again collecting a brace to set up the final against Philippines which ended in glory for Jamal Mahmoud’s men.
Philippines were less than solid from the start but explosive in attack, and were some observers’ favourites for the crown. It started slow with a tense 0-0 draw with Afghanistan before easing to a comfortable 2-0 victory over Laos thanks to goals from Rota and Reichelt. An end to end thriller against Turkmenistan, which saw keeper Muller pull off his first of two penalty saves in the tournament, was eventually put to bed when Younghusband and a spectacular volley from Reichelt ensured their progression as group winners. Their semi-final against Maldives was arguably the game of the tournament, the Azkals twice went in front only to be pegged back. Younghusband opening the scoring after shrugging off some bullish defending before Lucena put them 2-1 up at the end of the first half. Muller stopped his second penalty kick of the tournament in the second period but couldn’t save a late equaliser from Maldives. Chris Greatwich’s winner in extra time ensured the Philippines slipped through to the final encounter against Palestine.
Thursday’s small final saw Maldives and Afghanistan contest for third spot. A dull affair finally came to life late on in extra time as Fasir superbly volleyed home an equaliser for Maldives to cancel out Karimi’s opener with only 5 minutes remaining. The shoot-out saw Maldives secure third position after heroics in goal by Imran who had previously stepped up to slot home his penalty kick.
The hosts Maldives who attracted more than 10 times the support of the other nations’ matches were the clear neutrals’ favourite from the beginning of the tournament for all their colour in the stadium, adventurous attacking play and reckless defending. In their exciting opener they were caught cold against a quick off the mark Myanmar side and despite goals from Umair and one from their player of the tournament Ali Ashfaq, they couldn’t climb back to secure a point. For the remaining group stage matches they firmed up their defensive line and started to reward their home support. Ashfaq was again on target, this time with a brace as he commanded a brilliant 2-0 win over Kyrgyzstan before digging their heels in for a last day stalemate to ensure progression against Palestine. The epic semi-final against Philippines will live long in the memory and thanks to another special display from Ashfaq and a wonderful lob by Umair for his second of the tournament, the Maldives were to be sadly missed in the final.
Afghanistan’s route through the tournament was solid if not spectacular. Two 0-0 draws that ensured progression sandwiched their only victory at the tournament against Turkmenistan. It essentially showed the steel needed against the top seeds in the group who many would have suspected to come out on top of the encounter. A towering header from Amri got them off to a great start before goals from Hatifi and Shayesteh ensured the victory. Their semi-final against Palestine was a step too far staying relatively strong at the back but offering little in the final third. Afghanistan held a strange record of only scoring in 1 of their 5 matches in normal time, yet they clinched 4th spot.
Coming into the tournament many would have tipped Turkmenistan to make their way to their third straight Challenge Cup final but after a promising start they failed to live up to their seeding spot. A 5-1 battering in all sense of the word got them off to the greatest of starts against Laos, but indiscipline in the ranks in their final two group matches against Afghanistan and Philippines condemned their fate. Two second half red cards, notably one for keeper Nikita once all three substitutes had been made, clearly cost them any positive result against the Afghans, while they were unlucky against Philippines having a penalty saved when the match was finely poised, a needless third red card of the tournament left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Kyrgyzstan were another minor disappointment who failed to really get going in the group stage. Conceding late against Palestine shook them hard in a game they should have held onto a point, while Maldives blew past them in their second match. One bright star through the mist was 21 year old Valerii Kichin who performed heroically in defence and midfield, where he looks a real find for a country to build their future around. The final match saw that they wouldn’t leave empty-handed though with a narrow victory over Myanmar, but overall it was a tournament to forget for the men in Red and Gold.
The two lowest seeds in the draw lived up to their billing but both started their campaigns with a glimmer of hope. Myanmar outplayed Maldives for much of their opener with diminutive striker Kyaw Ko Ko stealing the lime light with an impressive performance in the 3-2 win. After that their defensive fragilities were highlighted with abject performances against Palestine and Kyrgyzstan. Laos’ high point was even briefer but for one man in particular it will live long in the memory. Khampheng Sayavutthi’s sensational bicycle kick was fitting of any stage and led Turkmenistan for a whole 10 minutes before being steamrolled by a much more physically strong outfit. A final day stalemate against Afghanistan was a notable point but couldn’t hide their blemishes and the work that still needs to be done.