CEBU CITY—The Philippines will miss a familiar figure in between the posts in the AFF Suzuki Cup—a player that showcased his sharpest form in the same tournament two years ago.
In what’s deemed as a huge blow to their campaign, the Azkals will miss top goalkeeper Neil Etheridge for the Nov. 24 to 30 tournament in Bangkok after the Filipino Briton chose to stay with his club, Bristol Rovers, for the duration of the event.
The 22-year-old Etheridge has yet to release a statement regarding his availability, but Rovers manager Mark McGhee confirmed in a report on the Bristol Post that the in-form goalkeeper won’t be going to Bangkok.
Etheridge’s unavailability further puts the Azkals in a difficult position as coach Michael Weiss revealed that the other Europe-based goalkeeper, Roland Muller, has an “almost-zero chance” of making the side for the tournament.
The only goalkeeper remaining in the squad with solid international experience is Army’s Ed Sacapano.
The Azkals actually got mixed news on the status of their overseas-based players as Angel Guirado, Dennis Cagara and Paul Mulders all got clearance from their respective clubs to join the national side for the three group matches.
Jerry Lucena will only be available for the Vietnam match on Nov. 27, leaving coach Weiss in a dilemma as to who he will include in the final 22-player list to be submitted a day before the tournament.
“It’s sad, but we can’t cry about it,” said Weiss, whose squad was slated to face Singapore last night at Cebu City Sports Center here in its final tuneup match before the Suzuki Cup.
“We just have to create things and help each other out.”
The Azkals are grouped with Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar in the tournament with the top two teams advancing to the semifinals, which will adapt a home-and-away format.
The Philippine Football Federation has actually started preparations for the hosting of a home semifinal match, if the Azkals make it further into the final four.
PFF president Mariano “Nonong” Araneta said the PFF will be spending close to P2 million to improve the lighting and the condition of the pitch at Rizal Memorial Stadium upon the recommendation of the tournament’s marketing arm, World Sport Group.