THE Philippine Azkals take on Guam in the joint FIFA-AFC qualifiers on Friday looking to strengthen its push for the 2023 Asian Cup. — THE AZKALS/PFF

By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

THE Philippine national men’s football team takes on Guam in the joint International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers on Friday looking to strengthen its push for the 2023 Asian Cup.

Coming off a 0-2 loss to China in their Group A match on June 8 that effectively shut their chances of advancing to the next round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the Azkals now focus on moving a step closer to making it to the AFC continental tournament.

Against the Chinese, the Philippines stood toe to toe in the opening half, forcing its opponent to a nil-nil count. It, however, could not sustain it the rest of the way en route to falling in the match held in a “bubble” at the Sharjam Stadium in the United Arab Emirates.

China used a strong push in the first 20 minutes of the second half to create separation from the Philippine team from which the latter could not recover from.

Forward Wu Lei put his team on the board in the 56th minute off a penalty kick after being brought down by Azkals goalkeeper Bernd Schipmann.

The Chinese team continued to put pressure on the Azkals and was rewarded in the 65th minute when midfielder Wu Xinghan slipped a shot to the far post for a 2-0 lead.

The Azkals tried to claw their way back after but with little success.

The win saw China (4-1-2, 13 points) remain in contention for the next round of the World Cup as one of the best runners-up in the qualifiers. Syria is still solidly on top of the grouping with 21 points from an unblemished card of 7-0-0.

The loss, meanwhile, left the World Cup push of the third-running Azkals (2-1-3, seven points) practically shut, but they remain in the race for the next round of the Asian Cup qualifying.

“We played well against China, holding them to a goalless draw in the first half and we felt we had a good chance of winning. I’m satisfied with our performance but not the result,” said Azkals coach Scott Cooper.

“But we look to build on it in our remaining games and in moving forward.”

The rest of Group A has Maldives (2-0-4, six points) in fourth place, followed by Guam (0-0-7).

The Azkals-Guam contest is set for 10 p.m. (Manila time) on June 11 and can be seen over One Sports and One Sports+.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) and the Azkals announced their partnership with Spanish sportswear brand Kelme to be the national team’s new outfitter.

In a virtual press conference on Wednesday, the groups formally unveiled their linkup that will run for two years and will see Kelme provide the Azkals with their kits.

The team debuted its new kits in their match against China on Tuesday.

“We welcome the partnership with Kelme which has a long history of making high-quality kits for teams in different parts of the world,” said PFF General Secretary Atty. Ed Gastanes, who also shared that negotiations between them and Kelme started in 2019 during the Southeast Asian Games.

For his part, Mr. Cooper said the partnership is a win-win situation for all the groups.

“For a respected brand like Kelme to come in as a partner speaks volumes of the PFF and the Azkals. I also think it benefits Kelme to support a team like the Azkals which is on the rise,” he said.

As part of the deal, replica kits are to be made available for fans in the near future.