By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
THE groundbreaking campaign of the Philippine men’s national football team at the AFC Asian Cup officially begins on Jan. 7; a proud moment for the country’s football program but something that presents an uphill battle, one local football analyst said.
To take on powerhouse and Group C mate South Korea at the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Monday, the Sven-Goran Eriksson-coached Philippine Azkals hope to make a good splash in their debut outing at the prestigious football tournament.
For the Asian Cup, the Philippine team has called up a selection of players, most of whom are already a staple in the squad but with notable omissions, in particular premier goalkeeper Neil Etheridge.
Called up were goalkeepers Nathaniel Villanueva, Michael Falkesgaard and Kevin Ray Hansen, and defenders Alvaro Silva, Carli De Murga, Daisuke Sato, Stephan Palla, Luke Woodland, Adam Tull, Curt Dizon and Paul Mulders.
Also part of the team are midfielders John-Patrick Strauss, Iain Ramsey, Manuel Ott, Kevin Ingreso, Stephan Schrock, Miguel Tanton, James Younghusband, and Mike Ott, and forwards Jovin Bedic, Phil Younghusband, Patrick Reichelt and Javier Patino.
Mr. Etheridge is not part of the Azkals for the Asian Cup because of his commitment with Cardiff City in the Premier League in Europe.
While the goalkeeper could play in the tournament opener of Philippines against South Korea, it was decided, with the player agreeing, not to include him to give his spot to a player that could stick around with the team for the duration of the Asian Cup.
Considering what the team had at its disposal, local football analyst Lorenzo del Carmen believes that the Azkals have come up with “the best possible lineup” and that the absence of some key players could be cushioned if those on tap will do their share in making things happen for the squad.
“Well, it’s the best possible lineup we can put out. I’m happy Javier Patino is included as he is arguably our deadliest forward,” said Mr. Del Carmen in an online correspondence with BusinessWorld as he talked about the Azkals heading into the Asian Cup.
“I’m a bit worried about our defense. Gone are the days when we had the likes of Juani Guirado and Rob Gier to anchor it. Neil Etheridge’s absence is a big blow which is why Michael Falkesgaard has to step up,” added the analyst, who covers football and writes for local site Tiebreaker Times.
At the Asian Cup, apart from South Korea (ranked 53rd in the world), the Philippines (116th) is lumped in Group C with China (76th), and Kyrgyzstan (91st).
Mr. Lorenzo said right at the onset the Azkals will have it tough but he is not necessarily ruling out a spirited challenge from the Philippine team.
“We’re in a tough group. I think our best chance of going to the knockouts is to finish one of the four best third-placed teams in the group stages because beating the likes of South Korea and China is a tall mountain to climb,” he said.
“A respectable showing, i.e. no thrashings, will for me be a good campaign considering the teams we’re grouped with,” Mr. Del Carmen added.
Like most football fans and observers, Mr. Del Carmen is also of the opinion that a “successful” campaign in the Asian Cup by the Azkals will do wonders in reigniting interest in football in the country, much like at the turn of the decade.
“If we can get to the knockouts, that’s easily a successful campaign already. If we can go far in the tournament, then it will hopefully boost the sport’s popularity in the country once again. Hopefully it will be like the height of 2010,” said Mr. Del Carmen, referring to the football buzz generated by the Azkals following their breakthrough performance in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup where they upended then defending champion Vietnam in the group stage in what is now fondly remembered as the “Miracle in Hanoi.”
The AFC Asian Cup begins on Jan. 5, Saturday, with the Group A match between UAE and Bahrain.
Tournament format calls for the top two teams in each of the six groupings at the end of group play advancing to the next round, to be joined by the four best third-place teams.
The 2019 AFC Asian Cup has the theme “Bringing Asia Together” and has Australia as the defending champion.