Preview: Azkals start World Cup quest vs Bahrain
More than four years since the Miracle of Hanoi catapulted the sport back to the nation’s consciousness, the Philippines remains in search of a victory with the same impact.
The match against Bahrain on Thursday as the Azkals begin their quest for a place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia provides them that golden opportunity.
Only three players from the team that propelled the Azkals to fame in 2010 remain, but a slew of talented newcomers are expected to make their mark in the Group H opener at the new Philippine Sports Stadium in Bulacan.
Captain Rob Gier, top scorer Phil Younghusband and goalkeeper Neil Etheridge all survived the cutthroat competition for places and will lead the 23-man squad for the matches against Bahrain and Yemen on June 16 in Doha, Qatar.
Gier certainly knows the enormity of the task at hand.
“We represent more than 107 million Filipinos and that should be not enough motivation to win (against Bahrain),” Gier said recently at the launch of the Azkals new kits made by local brand LGR Athletic Wears.
READ: PH Azkals get new kit
The nine-month qualifying process will take the Azkals to the Middle East, Central Asia and one of the most mysterious cities in the world, Pyongyang, in North Korea.
But it all begins at a (hopefully) packed 20,000-seater PSS as the Azkals slip into the underdog role once more.
More than playing the 107th ranked Bahrainis, there is plenty to be excited about as the Azkals parade one of their strongest side ever for a competition.
Here are some of the factors to look out for in the Azkals’ first match.
1. THE DOOLEY EFFECT
Coach Thomas Dooley has played at the highest level in the sport and if there’s anyone who understands how difficult it is to reach the showpiece event of football, it has to be the former United States skipper. Dooley represented the United States in the 1994 and 1998 editions of the World Cup. He was captain of the US in the 1998 tournament in France.
His experience should come in handy for the side that seems to underperform in big matches. Well, the Azkals will have eight “big” matches from June 16 until March next year as they go through the punishing qualifying process.
Dooley has constantly tinkered with the squad’s formations since taking over last year and he feels he has found the best one with this 3-4-3 setup that turns into a 5-4-1 when the Azkals are defending. He has some tough choices to make and one of them should come on the makeup of his backline. Will he go for youth and pace or for experience that would mean Rob Gier will remain as the anchor of the defense just like in previous tournaments.
Scoring goals has been a problem for the Azkals last year and much of Dooley’s training sessions have been predicated on short passing combinations, particularly on the final third. In Javier Patino, though, Dooley thinks he has found a player who can finish off those chances inside the box. Dooley has been tasked to handle the strongest Azkals side. Squeezing the best out of his players should be the challenge.
2. NEWCOMERS LOOKING TO MAKE THEIR MARK
There is no shortage in quality in this current crop of Azkals, particularly with the newcomers like Iain Ramsay, Luke Woodland, Kevin Ingreso and Stephan Palla.
Credit the management led by Azkals manager Dan Palami for infusing the side with more talent. Palami hasn’t rested on the Azkals’ laurels the past few years, working behind the scenes to make sure that the best players available for the Philippines are donning the country’s tri-colors.
The 27-year-old Ramsay has more than 100 matches under his belt in the Australian League, which is considered one of the strongest in the continent. Judging from the way coach Thomas Dooley set up his side in the friendly against the UFL All-Stars last Saturday, Ramsay will be playing on either side of a front three that includes Stephan Schrock and Javier Patino.
Woodland, 19, has been one of the most promising talents that England has produced in recent years and the Philippines stands to benefit from his progress. A versatile player who can play holding midfielder, Woodland could play at central defense because of his speed and size.
Palla plays in the top-flight in Austria. His size and workrate should be an asset for the Azkals. But arriving three days before the Bahrain duel owing to his wedding last June 6, Dooley certainly has a huge decision whether or not to insert the Fil-Austrian into his starting eleven.
At 22-years-old, Kevin Ingreso should provide pace and trickery off the bench. The Azkals attacking force is pretty much set with Phil Younghusband playing in behind Javier Patino, but Ingreso could get some minutes as he has progressed well in training camp.
3. BAHRAIN’S PEDIGREE
The Philippine Football Federation has benefitted from the generosity of the Bahrain Football Association in the past few years. The BFA has hosted several camps of the Azkals, lavishing them with five-star accommodations and providing topnotch training facilities. But that friendship would have to take a backseat for 90 minutes on Thursday night.
Although the country has never qualified for the World Cup, Bahrain has proven its pedigree in the tournament. Twice, the Middle East squad came tantalizingly close to reaching the tournament, losing in playoffs against Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 and against New Zealand in 2010.
But the Azkals sent a warning shot to the Bahrainis in March, losing just 1-2 in a friendly in Manama. Both teams however did not have their best players with the Bahrainis opting to rest Jaycee John Okwunwanne, a naturalized Nigerian striker who has 22 goals in 48 matches.
Okrwunwanne who scored against the UAE in the Asian Cup early this year will be available against the Azkals and so is Faouzi Mubarak Aaish who has 19 goals in 85 games for the Bahrainis. Faouzi scored the opener in the Bahrain win over the Azkals last March. Another prominent fixture for the Bahrainis the past two years is midfielder Sayed Saeed, who already has five goals in 19 outings since he made his debut three years ago.
Probable Azkals starting XI:
DF: Lucena, Woodland, Sato
MF: Rota, Ott, Younghusband, Steuble
FW: Schrock, Patino, Ramsay
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.