ON TO JORDAN! Malditas qualified for the Women's Asian Cup with a comeback draw over Bahrain

FINALLY! After 14 painful years, the magnificent nineteen that comprised the Malditas are heading to the Women's Asian Cup. (Photo by Tajikistan Football Federation)
By Kevin Estrada

MANILA -- Showing what "PUSO" means to them, the Philippines qualified for the AFC Women's Asian Cup with a match to spare after coming from a goal down early in the second half to force a stalemate with Bahrain in their penultimate Group A qualifier at Dushabe's Pamir Stadium on a Holy Tuesday midnight, Manila time.

It was the culmination of more than three months of hard work and sacrifice, as the student-athlete core of the Malditas delivered where it mattered the most when the golden opportunity to make Filipina football history was presented to them at the best time possible.

After mauling their opposition by a combined total of 16 goals after 3 matches, Leticia Bautista's fighting Filipinas faced an acid test in the Middle Eastern outfit who are taller and also well prepared of their exploits, with the fact that a win by the Bahrainis can move them within two points behind the Malditas and extend the qualifiers on Wednesday.
Remember the name. Sara CastaƱeda's 82nd minute equalizer sends the Malditas to Jordan next year. (file)
A decent and even first half surprised coach Buda's booters since they already killed the match already in their first three wins, as Bahrain gave the Malditas a furious run for their money with their relative size advantage and their quick counterattacks made the central defensive partnership of Hali Long and Alesa Dolino sweat for it to prevent the ball from going into Inna Palacios' net as it ended goalless at the break.

At the restart it was the Filipinas who dominated proceedings like in the first 45, but they cannot direct it past a determined Nouf Al Khalifa and her backline.

In the 56th minute, Bahrain made the Malditas pay for their inaccuracies in front of the goal by making their chances count against the run of play, with a quick free kick by Deena Abdulrahman finding Noora Sami Al-Dossary, who volleyed the ball home after one bounce past Palacios for the first ever goal conceded by the Philippines after leaving the frame clean for 325 minutes.

With urgency at its highest level, the Filipinas search for the equalizer and turned their attacking gear up a notch as Eva Madarang was caught by the lineswoman's flag for offside at the hour mark.

But as every Filipino sports story being written, the Malditas came back from the dead and got the equalizer they deserve in the 82nd minute thanks to their trademark patient build-up that their tired opposition cannot cope all match long.

Patricia Tomanon's left-footed cross into the box found Eva Madarang and got her field vision right in heading it to an onrushing Sara CastaƱeda who was at the right place and at the right time for the biggest goal scored in Pinay footballing lore, scoring her fourth in as many matches in the process with the right-footed hit that leave Al Khalifa no chance.

With shades of the 85th minute offside call that denied Ernest Nierras' Malditas a trip to Vietnam four years ago in Dhaka, it was the same flag that gave a huge hand in reserving the Filipinas' flight to Amman next year, with Noora being guilty of being in front of her last defender, giving coach Buda a huge sigh of relief.

Despite the Malditas were denied three chances of grabbing the winner in the stoppage time, it will not stop them from creating history as they qualify for their first Women's Asian Cup for a pair of firsts: since 2003 in Thailand and also when the qualification process was introduced.

With qualification assured, The Filipinas will cap off their qualifiers on Holy Wednesday against tournament hosts Jordan in a virtual bragging rights encounter.

Follow him on Twitter: @KevinLEstrada