By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
THE HISTORIC AFC Asian Cup campaign of the Philippine men’s national football team begins today as the Azkals play their debut group stage game in the continental football spectacle in the United Arab Emirates.
Playing for the first time ever in the Asian Cup, the Philippines takes on South Korea in a Group C match at the Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai at 9:30 p.m. (Manila time) where it hopes to set its bid to a good start.
The Azkals are also set to face China and Kyrgyzstan in the grouping with the top two teams automatically advancing to the next round.
Today’s game marks the first time that the Philippines is facing South Korea in 39 years.
The last time the two teams met, the Koreans lorded it over the Filipinos, winning, 8-0. The Taeguk Warriors have a 7-0 record against the Philippines and have scored 35 total goals and not allowing any to the Southeast Asian squad.
For this year’s Asian Cup, Azkals coach Sven-Goran Eriksson are banking on the efforts of a 23-man team, most of whom are already staples with the team.
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.
Top goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is not part of the Azkals for the Asian Cup because of his commitment with Cardiff City in the Premier League in Europe.
Despite the uphill battle facing them right at the onset of group play, Mr. Eriksson said it would not let it stop them from trying to make waves in the tournament and going all out.
“I think the Philippines have to go in with one target: to go through, to go further. That’s not easy but if you can do that, that’s good…” Mr. Eriksson was quoted as saying by the AFC Website, underscoring the kind of mindset his team has to have if they are to make things happen.
“We have to have that target if we go to the tournament. We can’t just go and be happy that we are there. Yes, we’re happy but that’s not enough. We have to try to go through,” added the coach, who led the Azkals to a semifinal finish in the AFF Suzuki Cup late last year.
After South Korea, which incidentally was the runner-up in the last edition of the Asian Cup in 2015 behind champion Australia, the Azkals will face off with China on Jan. 11 and Kyrgyzstan on Jan. 16.
Apart from winding up in the top two in their respective groupings, a team can advance to the next round of the tournament if it is one of the four best third-placed teams among the six groups in the group stage.
The 2019 AFC Asian Cup has the theme “Bringing Asia Together.”
The Azkals’ matches can be seen over FOX Sports which is available on SkyCable Channels 31 & 32 (SD) and 253 & 254 (HD) and on Cignal Channels 263 and 265 (HD).