Azkals upbeat despite North Korea run
BEIJING—The loss to Uzbekistan has left the Philippines with little breathing room in Group H of World Cup Qualifying, but an Azkals side that’s used to facing adversity remain upbeat as the team arrived in Pyongyang on Monday for the crucial World Cup Qualifying clash with unbeaten North Korea on Thursday.
The Azkals suffered their first loss in the qualifying series last Sept. 8 when Uzbekistan handed them a 1-5 defeat at Philippine Sports Stadium in Bulacan.
And while the loss does not put them out of contention, it put the Azkals under heavy pressure with two away games coming up in the space of five days.
“It’s a critical leg for us,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami, referring to the clash with North Korea, which is still undefeated in three matches and paces Group H. “Not only are we facing a strong team but the [Azkals] will also be in an unfamiliar country and culture. But we’re hopeful that the desire and determination of the players will pull us through because the team only has a few days of preparation for the game.”
The Azkals also play Bahrain in Manama on Oct. 13, making the task even more challenging with all the traveling they have to go through.
Between their departure from Pyongyang and their arrival in Manama, the Azkals would spend 36 hours either on a plane or in an airport with a 15-hour layover in Beijing.
“I definitely think it’s make-or-break for us,” Azkals skipper Phil Younghusband told the Inquirer during a six-hour layover in Beijing en route to the North Korean capital, considered as the most secretive city in the world.
“I mean if we don’t get good results in both games, then it’s going to be difficult.”
Younghusband said they had anticipated the challenging stretch when the draw was made last April.
“It was always going to be difficult with the draw,” he said. “We could only lose one game and with some luck, probably two. If we lose more than that, then its impossible for us to qualify.”
The top team in the group will qualify, along with the four second-best placers from among the eight groups in the series.
“We’ve lost one but we’re still in it and we know that if we get a couple of good results it gives us a good chance to make the third round,” said Younghusband.
The rest of the Azkals squad arrived in the Chinese capital early Monday with Neil Etheridge and Stephan Schrock fresh from playing matches in England and Germany, respectively, over the weekend.
Also linking up with the squad are Rob Gier, who traveled from England, Denmark-based Jerry Lucena, Austria-based Stephan Palla and Roland Muller.
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