Azkals find ray of hope with new Challenge Cup sked

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11:17 PM September 11th, 2013

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By: Cedelf P. Tupas, September 11th, 2013 11:17 PM

The 2014 AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives—the Philippines’ only chance of qualifying for the Asian Cup in 2015—has been moved from March to the third week of May, giving the Azkals a chance to field their strongest possible lineup.

While the Asian Football Confederation has yet to announce the change in dates, Philippine Football Federation president Mariano “Nonong” Araneta told the Inquirer yesterday that the AFC Competitions Committee had already approved the PFF’s request to move the tournament, where the champion will earn a ticket to the Asian Cup in 2015 in Australia.

With the new dates, the Azkals will have Europe-based players like Stephan Schrock, Neil Etheridge, Jerry Lucena, Roland Muller and Dennis Cagara available for selection with the European football season already done a few weeks before the tournament starts.

The Philippines, powered by its Europe-based players and new Filipino-Spanish striker Javier Patino, qualified as the best team in Group E after beating Cambodia and Turkmenistan at Rizal Memorial Stadium last March.

But there were still concerns whether the Azkals can come up with the same strong core for the main tournament, which was originally scheduled in the second week of March—a crucial time in the European club football calendar.

“We cited the fact that the Challenge Cup is an Asian Cup qualifier, which is also held on Fifa international match dates,” said Araneta. “We were hoping for parity and I think our request made sense to them (AFC).”

Azkals manager Dan Palami welcomed the development, but stressed that there is still plenty of work ahead for the squad, which will vie for the title against Turkmenistan, Laos, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kyrgyzstan and host Maldives.

“It’s a very welcome development for us because we intend to field our strongest team ever in the Maldives Challenge Cup and the dates being moved have actually allowed us to do that,” said Palami, who has bankrolled the team since 2010.

“It is up to (team management) and the PFF to ensure that we bring for the Philippines the best players, the best staff and the best coach to lead us toward our Asian Cup dream.”

While the development has come with added pressure, Palami is confident the team will be up to the challenge.

“There is added pressure because we find ourselves in a situation where the chance to be in the Asian Cup is within grasp, but I’m sure, our team will respond well to the pressure.

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