MANILA, Philippines — The journey to the top continues.
The men’s Philippine football team has reinvigorated Filipino football fans, after making history in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup.
The Azkals, playing with fierce determination, managed to make it through the group stage of the tournament, earning a ticket to the semi-finals.
It is the team’s first time to qualify for the prestigious competition.
On Friday, March 16, the Azkals will play the skilled Turkmenistan team for a chance at the finals.
Here are 5 things to know before the game:
1) It’s been a good run
The Azkals entered the tournament as the lowest seeded team.
In the pre-qualifying play-offs for the Challenge Cup early in 2011, the Philippines won on aggregate against Mongolia, to advance to the qualifiers. There, the Philippines tied Myanmar 1-1, held Palestine to a scoreless draw, and defeated Bangladesh 3-0.
The performance was enough to put the Azkals through to the Challenge Cup.
After booting 2006 champions Tajikistan and 2008 winners India from the tournament, they now find themselves in the top 4.
“We have entered a higher level. Our opponents are much stronger than anyone we play in the region. This has been based on hard work and commitment,” head coach Michael Weiss said.
Even the Office of the President has recognized the football team’s formidable feat.
“This is the highest level of our victory so far. It is higher than winning the Suzuki Cup so we certainly congratulate the latest triumph of the Azkals,” said presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda after the Philippine’s win over Tajikistan.
All eyes are on the Azkals as they aim for the cherry on top, of what has already been an impressive, unprecedented run.
2) The opponent: Turkmenistan
The Turkmenistan football team topped the group stage of Group A with 7 points, after registering 2 wins and 1 draw — earning the #1 spot by goal difference over Palestine.
They won their first game on the opening game of the tournament, downing Maldives 3-1, settling for a scoreless draw with Palestine, and defeating Nepal 3-0.
Friday’s game facing off the Turkmen with the Philippines will be a good match-up.
Turkmenistan may be at 166 in FIFA world rankings, 10 below the Azkals, but the rank is not reflective of the team’s talents. The team has dropped in rankings due to recent inactivity, not having played any games last month.
Additionally, while Phil Younghusband has scored 3 of the 4 goals of the Azkals in the first round, Turkmenistan’s 5 goals have come by way of 4 different players: Ruslan Mingazov, Amanov Arslanmyrat, Gahrymanberdi Chonkayev, Guvanch Hangeldiyev and Elman Tagayev.
Playmaker Arslanmyrat is a man to watch out for, having assisted 2 of the team’s 5 goals and adding 1 of his own in the group stage.
Compared to the Azkals who have two key players suspended from the semi-finals, the Turkmen will come in with a full team. Coach Hojageldiyev Yazguly will have the liberty to choose whoever he wants to field, including the starters he has been using in the past three games.
3) Suspensions and injuries
The Azkals will have to play the semis without key players James Younghusband and Angel Guirado. The 2 are suspended after earning two yellow cards each in the group stage.
Both midfielders have played crucial roles in the Azkals’ success so far.
Younghusband has worn the Captain band in place of an injured Aly Borromeo who is not with the team in Nepal, and a newly recovered Chieffy Caligdong when he is not on the pitch.
Guirado on the other hand, scored the winning goal against Tajikistan that propelled the Philippines to the semi-finals. Phil Younghusband’s equalizer also came by way of his assist.
In the meantime, Jason Sabio and Juan Luis Guirado — both effective defenders — are nursing some minor injuries, a knee and a thigh respectively.
It remains to be seen whether the 2 can play on Friday.
Several players however, are set to take the place of James Younghusband and Angel Guirado.
Weiss has choices in Jason de Jong, Marwin Angeles, Misagh Bahadoran, Ian Araneta and Lexton Moy, to deliver in the absence of the 2 suspended starters.
“I only hope that the players that are called into replace them will take the chance to step up,” Weiss said of his substitutes.
4) The Azkals strategy
The Azkals are expected to play more offensively come the semi-finals.
If the team wins against Turkmenistan, they will advance to the finals, against the winner of the other semi-finals that is pitting Group A winners North Korea with Group B runner-up, Palestine.
A loss will put them up against the loser of the North Korea-Palestine match, to battle for third place.
Given the stakes, Weiss will be looking to score early on in the game and get the win needed to advance. They will need to be aggressive in pounding the net, especially given the fact that Turkmenistan goalkeeper Alyhanov Rahmanberdi has conceded no goals in the tournament thus far.
Of course, much of the Azkals’ success comes from the fact that they have been consistent on defense — since holes in their fullback have hurt them in the past — but as long as the Azkals maintain a good balance and create chances for the forwards, they have a good chance to make it to the gold medal match.
If they manage to make it, they are likely to meet the talented North Korean team in the finals. The Azkals lost to the defending champions in the group stage, 2-0.
The winner of the tournament will automatically qualify for the prestigious 2015 Asian Cup.
5) High spirits
All these accomplishments come amidst sexual harassment complaints that have plagued Azkals Lexton Moy and Angel Guirado, as well as allegedly racist remarks addressed to the Azkals from reporter Arnold Clavio.
But the players have kept their eyes on the prize.
The team came into their match with Tajikistan excited and determined.
And the win has only served to pump up the boys even further.
On Twitter, striker Phil Younghusband thanked fans and promised, “we’ll give everything we have.”
Carlie de Murga shared his enthusiasm as well for the challenge that lies ahead.
“So… semis here we come! And we come… to stay, win and go on!,” he tweeted.
Weiss also told media they are looking forward to the Turkmenistan face-off.
“We are excited about the semi-final but we will be cool about it at the same time,” he said.
As if the routing of Tajikistan was not enough to encourage the squad, the Azkals will also reportedly be awarded an extra $500 dollars each from the Philippine Football Federation for making it to the semis.
But perhaps the Azkals’ winning formula is less measurable.
Perhaps the asset the Azkals boast above all else — more than monetary rewards and even more than talent — is a whole lot of heart, and a nation that believes in them just as much. – Rappler.com