Azkals in tough ‘Challenge’ group anewBy Cedelf P. Tupas |Philippine Daily Inquirer
SINGAPORE—Another tough group awaits the Philippines when it vies in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying tournament that will be staged in Manila early next year.
No strangers to difficult draws in high-level tournaments, the Azkals have been bracketed with 2012 Challenge Cup finalist Turkmenistan, and Southeast Asian sides Brunei and Cambodia.
The Turkmen are the same team that bundled out the Azkals with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory in the semifinals of the tournament last March in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Cambodia has reportedly pulled out of the 2013 tournament, although no announcement has been made by the AFC, while Brunei showed plenty of potential in the AFF Suzuki Cup Qualifiers early this year.
Only the top team in the group will automatically qualify for the final eight-team tournament for Asia’s “emerging” football nations in the Maldives in 2014, where the winner will clinch a berth in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
The qualifying tournament has been modified this time with 20 nations divided into five groups with the top two second-best teams also reaching the final round, where Maldives, as host, is already assured of a spot.
Although the group qualifying has been scheduled March 2 to 6, Philippine Football Federation president Mariano “Nonong” Araneta hinted of the event being moved to the last week of March to give the federation more time to prepare the venues for the tournament.
After the Azkals came all the way from pre-qualifying and emerged from the “Group of Death” to clinch a historic third place finish early this year in the same tournament in Kathmandu, Nepal, coach Michael Weiss has made winning the Challenge Cup his ultimate goal.
“We have to look at the bigger picture and that is the Challenge Cup,” said Weiss, whose Azkals were slated to face Singapore in the second leg of their AFF Suzuki Cup semifinal clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium last night here.
The Azkals are seeking a maiden championship appearance in the Suzuki Cup, after losing to Indonesia in the same stage two years ago in Jakarta.
“I see the Philippines in a different context because we are still not there where we can be,” said Weiss. “The Philippines is still an emerging country and participating in the Challenge Cup has a lot of impact and plenty of possibilities.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami believes the Azkals’ run in the Suzuki Cup will help them significantly in their preparations for the Challenge Cup.