Desperately looking for the Azkals
National football team coach Thomas Dooley stood restless at the touchline, shouting instructions amid the heavy downpour.
While the Philippines was only playing a friendly match against North Korea, what was happening on the Rizal Memorial Stadium pitch worried him so much he exposed himself to the elements rather than find shelter on the bench like his Korean counterpart.
The match was difficult to watch. The Azkals chased shadows and looked like they were ready to concede a goal each time the enemy pushed the ball forward. Offensively, the Azkals couldn’t conjure a clear-cut chance.
In the end, the Filipinos looked spent and lacked ideas in the 1-3 defeat—their second in as many matches after the 1-2 loss to Bahrain five days before. Pundits agreed the team showed little fight and urgency.
With only a few weeks before the Azkals embark on their toughest challenge yet, Dooley is in a quandary about how he could field his best squad for the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, which the country will be hosting for the first time from Nov. 19 to 26 at Philippine Sports Stadium in Bocaue, Bulacan.
A stroke of misfortune has marred the Azkals’ preparations. The retirement of some of the squad’s most experienced defenders early this year and injuries to a couple of regulars have forced the German-American coach to dig deep into his side. The transition has been difficult, to say the least, and the Azkals’ inability to play for three months after their stunning win over North Korea in World Cup Qualifying stunted their progress.
“If the Suzuki Cup starts tomorrow, that would be a concern for me,” says Dooley. “But we have time to change that, time to think of different ways. If you want to make everyone happy, play against a team we can beat and everybody will think that the preparations is perfect. But we want to play against better teams.”
“We don’t have to panic,” says Dooley. “We made those games (friendlies against Bahrain and North Korea) to see what we are doing wrong. You don’t find out those when you win 3-0. It’s a reality check.”
Dooley may sound defiant, but the concern is undeniable. The pressure is mounting on him and the Azkals to finally deliver a major trophy for the country. Interest in the team is dwindling as proven by attendance in recent matches. The Azkals are no longer the hottest ticket in town.
But three straight AFF Suzuki Cup semifinal appearances, starting from that miraculous run in 2010 in Vietnam, and home-field advantage for the first time in the group stages also put the Azkals as a favorite to advance from Group A, which also includes defending champion Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. There’s also the small matter of being the top-ranked team in Southeast Asia, which the Azkals feel they can reinforce with a Cup title.
Help is on the way, though.
Javier Patino, who is finding his form late in the season in the Chinese Super League, will play in the Suzuki Cup for the first time since joining the Azkals in 2014.
But while there’s a wealth of attacking talent in the team, it’s in defense where the Azkals were exposed to be lacking in their last two games. Slow to react, disorganized and caught out of position, the current backline, anchored by the 21-year-old Amani Aguinaldo, has been a far cry from the solid defensive units of years past.
Simone Rota, Aguinaldo’s partner in central defense, recently underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL, while leftback Daisuke Sato remains unlikely to suit up since he now plays in Romania.
Neil Etheridge, who is having the season of his career at Walsall in the English third tier, is also out for the Suzuki Cup, opting to focus on his club career.
Dooley has been left with midfielders Kenshiro Daniels, Martin Steuble and Dennis Villanueva as options for the back line. The Azkals’ success will hinge on how quickly they adjust to their roles.
The midfield combinations are also dodgy, especially since Phil Younghusband is now playing a more defensive role. Younghusband isn’t only the country’s top international scorer with 42 goals, but he is also one of the most experienced players in the squad, much like older brother, James, whose national team career has been reinvigorated following a string of strong performances.
Phil, who will be coming off a gruelling UFL season with the Loyola Meralco Sparks apart from his work with The Younghusband Football Academy, is a proven scorer at the Suzuki Cup level. James, who made his debut in 2006 against Malaysia in Bangkok, provides the size and aerial threat.
“It’s important that we think what’s the best team we can put out and what do we have to do to win the games,” says Younghusband. “We’re going into the games trying to win. We’re not going to go to the semifinals and think that it’s okay if we lose, or if we get to the finals, we think we’ve done well and this is fine. I think it’s important to prepare and know what you are going into.”
Striker Misagh Bahadoran admits that it has been tough for the team this year.
“I believe we have a team that is good enough to challenge for the Suzuki Cup title, though,” he says. “We have players who are committed to work hard and fight for the country.”
Time is not on Dooley’s side, however. The Azkals still have one more friendly, against Kyrgyzstan, on Nov. 9 that will give the coach the opportunity to finalize his squad. Between now and Nov. 19, when the Azkals open their campaign against Singapore, the team will be under scrutiny, the margin for error getting smaller with each passing day. The time for experimentation is over.
But the Azkals have been through worst. And for a team that thrives on adversity, it will be difficult to count them out.
“We cannot discount the team’s ability to adjust and be resilient, especially when the stakes are high,” says Azkals manager Dan Palami. “Time and again, our team has shown that they can rise above adversity.”