By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
THE Philippine national men’s football team knows that it has its work out for in its qualifying bid for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022 and the AFC Asian Cup in China in 2023 which is why it is leaving no stones unturned in preparing for it.
Speaking at the weekly Philippine Sportswriters Association Forum at the Amelie Hotel Manila on Tuesday, Azkals coach Scott Cooper said that they are currently in the middle of their preparation for the qualifiers which begin on Sept. 5 with a home game against Syria at the Panaad Park and Football Stadium in Bacolod City.
To be precise, Mr. Cooper said they are in the process of selecting the players who will make up the team in the opener, putting premium, he said, on “finding the right blend.”
“We are currently in the phase of selecting the players, finding the right blend for the team. We are taking it one game at a time, beginning with the opener against Syria here at home on Sept. 5,” said Mr. Cooper, who took over head-coaching duties from Sven-Goran Eriksson, the team’s coach in the AFF Suzuki Cup last year and Asian Cup in January.
In connection with the selection of players, the team named a 39-man pool from which the team would take form from.
Included in the pool are Azkals veterans Stephan Schrock, Neil Etheridge, Phil and James Younghusband, Patrick Reichelt, Amani Aguinaldo, Kevin Ingreso and Luke Woodland as well as young prospects Yrik Galantes and Mikel Justin Bass.
Goalkeeper Etheridge, playing for Cardiff City in Europe, is set to miss the first two games of the qualifiers because of injury but Mr. Cooper is bullish of other players stepping up in his place, including keepers Michael Falkesgaard and Patrick Deyto, who are both playing in the Thai Premier League.
The team also included several new players from Europe in the pool.
The Azkals will begin their campaign in the qualifiers from Group A along with China, Syria, Maldives and Guam.
China is the highest-ranked team in Group A in the latest world rankings at 77th, followed by Syria (85th), the Philippines (126th), Maldives (152nd) and Guam (190th).
While Mr. Cooper said it is going to be an uphill climb for them in the qualifiers, they remain positive with the intent of giving their all and competing.
“We’re very positive and the expectation is to win, not just see what we can do against these teams,” said Mr. Cooper.
“We went to the Asian Cup (last January) and performed well against South Korea, but not so much in the last two games (against China and Kyrgyzstan). This time, the mentality has to be spot-on. We have to give a bit more fight and have a lot more belief. Performances are always good, but we need results,” he added.
In the qualifiers, tournament format calls for the winners in the eight groups and the four runners-up with the best record advancing to the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Finals and the final round of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
However, should Qatar win their group, the seven other group winners and five best second-placed sides will advance to the final round of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The Azkals’ game versus Syria will be the first of what is a scheduled home-and-away campaign that will last until June 2020.