The Philippines faces the “tricky” task of qualifying from Group E of the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers which the country will host from March 22 to 26 at Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Although the Azkals will be at full-strength with overseas-based players available for selection, coach Michael Weiss warned his squad that advancing to the main tournament next year will not be easy.
The Azkals face Brunei on March 22 and Cambodia two days later, before wrapping up their campaign against 2012 Challenge Cup losing finalist Turkmenistan, which beat the Filipinos in the semifinals of last year’s tournament.
Only the top team in the group will qualify for next year’s eight-team final, where host Maldives, Myanmar, Palestine and Afghanistan have already punched their tickets.
“It’s a tricky tournament and its not going to be a walk in the park,” said Weiss at a press conference at the Philippine Football Federation office Thursday.
“We have a good mix (of players), but we have to show that we have come a long way and prove that we can play at a high level.”
Unlike in previous tournaments where their preparations were extensive, the Azkals have struggled to find training time together with the United Football League ongoing and the PFF finding difficulty scheduling an international friendly match for them.
PFF general secretary Ed Gastanes said the federation is still arranging a friendly match against a “higher-ranked” team probably in Hong Kong or Macau on March 17.
One thing going for the Azkals will be the availability of the likes of Stephan Schrock, Rob Gier, Jerry Lucena, Dennis Cagara, Ray Jonsson, Paul Mulders, Angel Guirado and newcomer Javier Patino. The squad also has a selection dilemma in the goalkeeper position with both Neil Etheridge and Roland Muller available.
Azkals manager Dan Palami acknowledged that they will be favorites in the group, but that will not change the “underdog” mentality of the team.