The Philippine Azkals brace for an all-out war when they compete in their biggest tournament so far — the 2019 AFC Asian Cup — that fires off this weekend in various pitches around the United Arab Emirates.
The 24-nation football showcase kicks off on Saturday with UAE taking on neighbor Bahrain, but the greenhorn Filipinos will not see action until Monday when they confront two-time champion South Korea at the 15,000-seater Al-Maktoum Stadium at the heart of Dubai.
The Azkals, who rank 116 in the latest FIFA ranking, are coming in as heavy underdogs in Group C, which also features powerhouse China and another first-timer in Kyrgyzstan.
The Filipinos have yet to lock horns with the Koreans, but China crushed them in a friendly match two years ago, 1-8.
They are quite favored over Kyrgyzstan after beating it twice in 2016, although reports have it that the Central Asian side is marching in great shape after climbing to no. 91 in the world ranking.
“I think it’s a good draw because at least we’ve played two teams in the group before so we know what to expect,” said Azkals captain Phil Younghusband.
The Azkals wrapped up a short training camp in Doha last Wednesday and flew to Dubai via Oman. The camp included a 2-4 loss to AFF Suzuki Cup champion Vietnam in a closed-door friendly.
Actually, the Azkals have been preparing as early as November and competed in the AFF Suzuki Cup, where they reached the semifinals before bowing to Vietnam. They took a breather for three weeks and it remains to be seen whether they are still in the condition they need to overcome the powerhouse sides, who are all looking to gain points out of their matches.
The biggest setback for the Azkals will be the absence of star goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who opted to stay in England to focus on his campaign for Cardiff City in the prestigious English Football League.
Tasked to take the cudgels is Younghusband, the country’s top international scorer with 52 goals, as well as Patrick Reichelt, who flaunted his scoring prowess when he delivered crucial goals against Vietnam and Singapore in the AFF Suzuki Cup.
Stephan Schrock will also be there to provide grit and spunk at the attack zone while Javier Patino serves as another option in the scoring department.
Patino’s holdup play and ability to get teammates involved in the final third will also be badly needed for a Philippine side that may take a more conservative approach against stronger sides.
A cloud of gloom hovers the defensive line as the Azkals seem to struggle against teams with quick players, similar to what happened in a friendly against Vietnam when its quick and short passing led to an opening goal.
Philippine defenders tried to stop the dizzying passing game, but the Vietnamese found a way to throw their defenders in disarray, prompting Nguyen Quang Hai to easily beat Michael Falkesgaard on goal.
Azkals British coach Sven Goran Eriksson, who was hired specifically for this tournament, now has a couple of days to get these issues sorted before the team plunges into action.
Still, the Azkals’ presence here is already a massive accomplishment for Philippine football.
“Every player dreams of representing his country in this kind of stage, in a tournament of this magnitude, so we’re all excited to be here,” said Younghusband.