MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Azkals played a training match against Mongolia last Tuesday, November 6, at Vermosa in Imus Cavite. But kickoff was delayed a bit when assistant coach Chris Greatwich noticed a small hole in the otherwise pristine pitch. The other members of the coaching staff pitched in to toss some dirt into the depression so that play could begin.
There might be holes to fill on the pitch, but not on the Azkals roster. New coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has a quiver stuffed with arrows, with a few caveats we will get to later.
“This is definitely one of the strongest teams we have ever put together for a Suzuki Cup,” said Phil Younghusband, who did not train on Tuesday because he was nursing a minor cold.
The Suzuki Cup has been reformatted, with each team getting two home games in the group. Instead of 4 teams battling for two semis spots in the group, 5 teams will now duke it out for the semis slots.
The Azkals play Singapore on November 13 in Bacolod, travel to Malaysia to face Timor Leste on the 17th, tackle Thailand in Panaad on the 21st, then finish the group with a difficult road game against Indonesia in the cauldron that is Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno on the 25th.
The Azkals are mostly two-deep with quality players on every spot. And new blood is boosting the team.
John-Patrick Strauß is a new addition who got his first cap against Oman in the last FIFA window. The 22-year-old defensive midfielder plays for FC Erzgebirge Aue in the second tier of German football, an extremely high level.
“He is technically very sound, hardworking, and can really interrupt play,” said Younghusband.
“He does a lot of the work that goes unnoticed.”
Strauß was en route to the Philippines on Tuesday and is expected to be in Bacolod later in the week until the end of the competition.
Another key pick up for the Philippines is Filipino-Spanish central defender Alvaro Silva. He has played for the Philippines in friendlies in the past, but now with a passport, he can play in a competition.
Silva was with Kedah in Malaysia last season after transferring from Hanoi. Silva is 34 but looked very sharp in training. The Azkals website lists him as “unattached” to a club now.
“Alvaro is not the kind of central defender I want to play against,” admitted Younghusband. The Azkals skipper noted his physicality, even against players who don’t have the ball.
Silva follows in the tradition of Rob Gier and Juani Guirado: the smart, experienced bulwark of the defense.
Behind Silva will be one of 3 goalies. Neil Etheridge is the likely starter for the first two games, then either Fil-Dane Michael Falkesgaard or Pat Deyto will play the remainder of the matches after the FIFA window concludes.
“We are really blessed to have good keepers,” said Younghusband.
“We are spoiled for choice and any of them can come in and do the job.”
The Azkals leading scorer was also effusive in his praise for new recruit Amin Nazari, whose father is Iranian and mother is Pinay. He grew up and was developed in Sweden, just like elder brother Omid, who plays for Ceres.
Omid is cap-tied to Iran and can never play for the Azkals, but Amin seems committed to the Philippines. The defensive mid plays for IFK Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, a Swedish-speaking archipelago that is part of Finland. The club plays in the Finnish league.
“He is technically very good and keeps possession well,” said Phil. “But he plays in a very cold country and may find the conditions here difficult.”
Nazari played for the Philippines against Bahrain in the recent friendly in Oman. He was at training on Tuesday.
The Fil-Iranian is not listed in the squad of 29 for the AFF championship, and Azkals boss Dan Palami said there are still some wrinkles to be worked out regarding his eligibility with FIFA. It’s not clear if he can play in this Suzuki Cup but the outlook could be rosier for him for the AFC Asian Cup in January. The team said they will whittle the squad down to a final 23 but can still add some players in the event of injury.
While there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, there are causes for concern.
Javier Patiño is in the roster. It is likely he starts against Singapore next Tuesday in Panaad and versus Timor Leste in Kuala Lumpur 4 days later. But team officials told me that his club may give him their blessing to play after the FIFA international window shuts on November 20, ruling him out of the match against Thailand on the 21st and versus Indonesia on the 25th. Clubs are typically not obliged to release players for international duty outside of the windows.
This kept him off the Suzuki two years ago, when he was still with a Chinese club and the Suzuki was held completely outside FIFA dates. Now Patigol plays for Buriram United in Thailand.
Why Patiño may not be allowed to play for us while Buriram’s Pansa Hemviboom, Siwarak Tedsungnoen, Korrakot Wiriyaudomsiri, Saisalak Haiprakorn and Supachai Jaided can presumably play the whole tournament for Thailand is perhaps best explained by the club.
Stephen Palla, another Azkal, is also on the Thunder Castles payroll. I have not heard that he is being held back after the window, but we shall see.
One can only surmise that Patiño may have a different contract from the one all of these other players have inked. One that stipulates his contract may be voided if he gets injured playing outside of a FIFA date. (FIFA date injuries while on international duty are usually covered by insurance.)
At any rate, one hopes this becomes something like the Jordan Clarkson situation, where after much back-and-forth, the NBA allowed him to play for Gilas in the Asian Games. It’s my understanding that negotiations between the Azkals and Buriram could be ongoing.
We desperately need Patino’s firepower. He has scored 6 goals for the Azkals in 13 caps. Watch this space.
Another cause for concern is the fitness of the Ceres Negros players, namely Mike and Manny Ott, Curt Dizon, Kevin Ingreso, Martin Steuble, Stephan Schrock, Patrick Reichelt and Carlie De Murga. None are hurt, but all played their last competitive game on September 22, when they were eliminated from the PFL Copa Paulino Alcantara in the group stage by Davao.
That means when we take the field against Singapore, many of our starters will not have played a competitive club match in over one and a half months. That’s far from ideal.
If It is any consolation, they did look pretty sharp against Mongolia, winning 3-1 over three 30-minute periods. The elder Ott even scored a goal. Let’s hope the boys have been keeping fit during their respite.
Another point of concern: the centerbacks. Will Eriksson pair Silva, 34 years old, with De Murga, turning 30 this month, at central defense? Or will he go with one of the younger options, Marco Casambre and Amani Aguinaldo for at least one of the CB spots? These are the tough decisions Eriksson and chief assistant Scott Cooper will need to make.
Other than that, there is quality all over the formation. Schrock is back for a second Suzuki Cup in a row and he can change a game in an instant. Ditto for Manny Ott and our wide players, Reichelt and Dizon. Daisuke Sato is on his way and I believe we can have him for the entire duration of the tournament, just like with Strauß.
The team now hunkers down for preparations in Bacolod. Let’s hope a noisy and raucous Panaad crowd can make that home advantage count.
Philippines vs Singapore
AFF Suzuki Cup 2018
Panaad Stadium, Bacolod City
7:30 pm, Tuesday, November 13
LIVE on Aksyon TV and espn5.com
Tickets as low as P100 available at SM Tickets outlets
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH. – Rappler.com