MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine National Men’s Football Team faces a major hurdle as they open their 2014 Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup campaign against reigning South Asian Football Federation titlist tonight (midnight in Manila) in Addu City, Maldives.
Last edition’s Golden Boot winner Phil Younghusband and veteran defender Rob Gier will not be around in the Azkals’ opening match after getting booked in their previous matches, the Philippine Football Federation’s president Nonong Araneta confirmed to the Philippine Star on weekend.
Younghusband, who netted in a tournament-best six goals in the 2012 Challenge Cup, was shown yellow twice in the Philippines’ last match against Turkmenistan at home while Gier gathered two yellow cards also in two of their qualifying fixtures against Cambodia and Turkmenistan last year.
With Buriram United striker Javier Patino unable to make the trip, the Philippines will have to rely on Ruben Doctora, the only remaining listed forward in the lineup, on top but coach Thomas Dooley does have options to put either Patrick Reichelt or Paul Mulders, two versatile midfielders, in place of the suspended Younghusband.
The Azkals will feel the sting on defense as they’re already thinning backline will be missing its anchor in Filipino-British Gier this time.
The Philippines, however, remains a tough squad to beat as its midfield will be intact with Eintracht Frankfurt’s Stephan Schrock joining the already packed lineup that also includes foreign-based talents in Jerry Lucena, Dennis Cagara, Neil Etheridge, Martin Steuble and Roland Muller.
The best of the United Football League will also beef up the squad with OJ Porteria, James Younghusband, Chris Greatwich, Jason de Jong, Daisuke Sato, Simone Rota, and Patrick Deyto bannering the local stars.
Anton del Rosario and Carli de Murga, on the other hand, make their Azkals return in big competitions after missing the Philippines’ previous matches in the past year.
Tough Afghanistan challenge on opening day
Afghanistan — which upset India last year for the SAFF trophy — like the Azkals, will also be parading a squad with a chunk of the players coming from Europe.
Balal Arezou, who plays for Asker Fotbal in Norway and is Afghanistan’s leading goal scorer in its Challenge Cup lineup, will lead his side’s offense as he tries to add more to his tally of nine international goals while Zohib Islam Amiri – the most experienced player in the Afghan crew – will skipper the squad from the backline.
The Afghans have a bunch of players coming off Germany’s lower tier leagues led by Sandjar Ahmadi who has found the back of the net for his country six times and Mustafa Hadid who can play either on offense or defense.
The Erich Rutemoller-mentored side has won six of its last ten fixtures including a 1-0 win over Kyrgyzstan in their last stretch of preparation approaching the Challenge Cup. Their most impressive showing, though, was in their close 2-3 loss to 105th-ranked Kuwait last week.
The Philippines and Afghanistan have only met once, a preliminary match in the 2006 edition of the Challenge Cup which ended in a 1-all deadlock.
Challenge Cup action has already began in Group A with Myanmar pulling off a 3-2 squeaker over the hosts Maldives and Palestine beating Kyrgyzstan, 1-nil.
The Philippines – Afghanistan tiff will kick off 9 pm local time (midnight in Manila) at the Addu Football Stadium. – Rappler.com
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