NEW COACH Tom Saintfiet has assembled a combo of veterans and promising youngsters for the Philippine men’s football team set for two challenging duels with powerhouse Iraq in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.

Ace goalkeeper Neil Etheridge will captain the 28-man squad that will face the unbeaten Group F leader Iraqis on the road on March 21 in Basra and at home five days later.

Helping the Fil-British provide experience and leadership are fellow vets Patrick Reichelt, Daisuke Sato, Amani Aguinaldo, Patrick Deyto, Mike Ott, Kevin Ingreso and OJ Porteria.

Seven youth standouts — Matthew Baldisimo, Michael Baldisimo, Jeremiah Borlongan, Chima Uzoka, Mark Swainston, Andres Aldeguer, and Theo Libarnes — may make their senior debuts in this window.

Eighteen-year-old Santiago Rublico of Atletico Madrid U19 got another call-up taking part in the Pinoys booters’ 0-2 loss to Vietnam and 1-1 draw with Indonesia in the previous set last November.

Also back from that group are Kevin Ray Mendoza, Pocholo Bugas, Jesse Curran, Simen Lyngbo, Christian Rontini, Jefferson Tabinas, Justin Baas, and Oskari Kekkonen.

Marco Casambre, 21-year-old Paul Tabinas, Mark Swainston, and Jarvey Gayoso round out the crew that will carry the fight in Mr. Saintfiet’s first action since taking over from Michael Weiss last month.

The 139th-ranked Philippines, which has dropped the moniker Azkals, is hoping to steal at least a point against the No. 59 Lions of Mesopotamia to boost their drive for Top 2 in the group and ticket to the next round of the qualifiers. After the November 2023 games, the Filipinos are running third with one point as Iraq holds sway with six points ahead of Vietnam (three points). — Olmin Leyba