MANILA, Philippines – The end of the road is near for the men’s Philippine football team.
The Azkals have had a phenomenal run in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup in Kathmandu, Nepal, battling their way through the group stage and qualifying — on their first appearance in the tournament ever — for the semi-finals.
While a strong, skilled Turkmenistan side ultimately cut the dreams of the Azkals for a finals bid, the Philippine team now find themselves with one more chance to bring pride to the country.
On Monday, March 19, the Azkals face Palestine to compete for their best result thus far — a third place finish.
Both Palestine and Turkmenistan finished the group stage with 7 points each, but Turkmenistan was ranked higher because of goal difference.
Turkmenistan then faced off with the Philippines in the semis, and defeated the Azkals 2-1.
When Palestine played Turkmenistan in the group stage, the team held the Turkmen to a scoreless draw.
Palestine scored 2 goals each in their games against Maldives and Nepal in the group stage, and will look to play with aggression against the Azkals for a third place finish.
“We were hoping to win the championship but now we are in the playoff and we will do all we can to finish third,” said head coach Jamal Mahmoud.
Palestine is ranked 160th in FIFA world rankings, 4 spots below the Philippines, but the two teams are well-matched.
Like the Philippines, they conceded 2 goals to defending champions North Korea. Additionally, the Philippines and Palestine met a year ago in the AFC group stage qualifiers — a game that finished 0-0.
Palestine has scored 4 goals in the tournament thus far, courtesy of four different players: Fahed A. F. Attal, Alaa A. I. Atya, Husam R. S. Wadi, and Ashraf N. O. Alfawaghra — who scored a goal 4 minutes into injury time in their game against Maldives.
The Azkals on the other hand, have scored 4 of their 5 goals of the tournament through striker Phil Younghusband.
Like the Philippines, Palestine has made history and comes to the playoffs with as much thirst to make their country proud after being routed for the finals. Palestine is the first West Asian team to make it to the semis in the history of the tournament.
“It is important for us to win every game we play in because we want to represent Palestine with pride,” said Mahmoud. “And show the world the strength of our national team.”
Back-up goalkeeper Eduardo Sacapano will play his first game of the tournament after first choice goalie Neil Etheridge was suspended for mildly kicking a Turkmenistan striker in the semis.
The 30-year-old Sacapano has trained with the squad in the build-up to the tournament. He won “Best Goalkeeper Award” in the 2009-2010 LBC-UFL season.
Head coach Michael Weiss has expressed faith in his goalie, saying he has done well leading to the AFC Challenge Cup.
“He has been learning a lot from Neil and from another Germany-based keeper Roland Muller,” Weiss said.
Midfielders James Younghusband and Angel Guirado — both key players of the team — will also be back on the pitch after being suspended from the semis for getting 2 yellow cards each in the group stage.
The return of the 2 playmakers will be crucial, as is the return of tough defender Jason Sabio who was healing a roughed-up knee and missed the last game — since the Azkals need to make sure to keep their defense consistent throughout, to have a shot at 3rd.
The Philippine team’s notorious weakness of showing cracks on defense in the later portion of the game, is arguably what booted them out of the finals. Turkmenistan took advantage of these cracks in the semis, scoring on the 80th and the 86th minute.
But the Azkals are still as determined — if not more — to prove the strength of their team, and bring home a bronze for the country.
“This has been a good tournament for us and we are taking the third-place match very seriously,” said Weiss. “We see this as our final and we will do our best to bring pride and glory to the country.”
The game kicks off at 4:45 pm Philippine time, while North Korea will meet Turkmenistan in the finals at 7:15. – Rappler.com