Cooper gunning for Azkals reboot in Syria duel
BACOLOD CITY—With a new challenge looming, coach Scott Cooper is pressing the reset button on the Azkals.
Forget about coming close to holding South Korea to a draw in the Asian Cup in January in Dubai or even the two losses to China early this year.
Under Cooper, the Azkals are getting a fresh start as they plot a way out of their tough group in the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers that starts on Wednesday night when they take on Syria at Panaad Stadium here.
“It’s about resetting the mind-set of the players,” Cooper told the Inquirer.
“It’s time to win. We cannot afford to be stuck in the past, but we can take those good qualities and improve them and add more elements to it. We want a team that is confident and also aggressive.”
The Azkals, who will also face Guam on Tuesday in the US territory, have been winless in almost eight months with their last victory coming against Timor Leste in the group stage of the AFF Suzuki Cup in Kuala Lumpur last November.
But they’ll be at the familiar confines of Panaad as they test a Syrian side that boasts top attacking talent, including captain Faris Al-Katib, whom Cooper described as an “unbelievable and crafty player.”
The Azkals also caught a break with former AFC Asian Player of the Year Omar Kharbin reportedly pulling out of the Syrian squad in anticipation of the birth of his child.
“They’re (Syrians) very dangerous up front and it is going to be hard to keep a clean sheet against them,” said Cooper, who is designated as assistant team manager in the roster of officials since he lacks the pro license to be named the national team coach. Goran Milojevic is the assigned coach for the qualifiers, but Azkals manager Dan Palami said the Serbian reports to Cooper.
Cooper said the Syrians are also vulnerable defensively and with Stephan Schrock and Javier Patino in fine form, the Azkals are capable of unlocking the visitors.
Syria, which reached the fourth round of the last World Cup qualification phase, is 39 places higher than the Philippines at No. 87 in the Fifa rankings.
“They are 40 places above us for a reason, but playing in Bacolod is a leveller,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to find a way to make Panaad intimidating, let our opponents feel they don’t want to be there to face us.”
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