Azkals–Yemen preview: Still so much to play for
Philippines vs Yemen
FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup joint qualifier
8:00 pm Kickoff, Thursday, November 12
Rizal Memorial Football Stadium
LIVE coverage on ABS-CBN Sports + Action starting at 7:30 pm
The latest installation of what has been a rollercoaster qualifying campaign comes on Thursday, November 12, with an Azkal side that is looking to bounce back from recent setbacks against Yemen.
Unlike the first two home qualifiers that took place in the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bulacan, the match will be on the carpet in Rizal Memorial. PFF Secretary-General Ed Gastanes told me that we are allowed only one switch of venue for the campaign, so the Korea DPR home game in March will definitely also be in Rizal.
A meager one-point haul from the October road trip to North Korea and Bahrain leaves the Philippines in third in the 5-team Group H with 7 points, one more than Bahrain and two less than second-place Uzbekistan. Unbeaten Korea DPR, who the Philippines battled to a goalless stalemate in Pyongyang, are sitting pretty atop the table with 13 points.
Only the group champions and the best 4 second-placers in the 8 groups book their passage to the subsequent qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Thus,pip the outlook is grim for the Philippines.
To pip North Korea for the top spot the Philippines must run the table, defeating Yemen on Thursday and then taking the maximum 6 points from games in March versus Korea and Uzbekistan. Plus the North Asians must lose their last 3 matches, (or lose two and draw one), and Uzbekistan's results must also go our way. Although the Chollima, (as North Korea are known), play Uzbekistan on Thursday, they also still have a game against winless, point-less, and goal-less Yemen in March before playing the Azkals in the last game. A win in any of those matches and the Philippines cannot top the group.
Getting one of the top 4 second-placer slots is also a tall order. The Pinoys have a -3 goal difference. Among all the current third-placers, only Vietnam has a GD that bad. All the second placers are positive in that column.
So if the Philippines wishes to slip into the top half of the group bridesmaids, it should ideally win their next 3 matches by exceedingly large margins, then hope that enough second placers in the 7 other groups suddenly forget how to play football until March.
So it is unlikely we can continue our march to Russia.
Fortunately, there is a second prize. These qualifying groups are also joint qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2019. The teams who make the next round of World Cup qualifying also punch their tickets directly to the Asian Cup final stage. Then the bottom 4 runners-up, all 8 third-placers, and the best 4 fourth-placers all qualify for the next round of Asian Cup qualification in 2017. (I hope you are following this, I know it's not all that simple.) That next phase for the Asian competition will have a double-round robin format with teams grouped in groups of 4, so 6 games.
The 4 worst fourth-placers and the 8 group cellar-dwellers must go into a play-off phase in 2016 to get to that aforementioned next qualification phase for the Asian Cup. The Philippines definitely does not want to slide into that quagmire. Grabbing the express ticket to the round-robin in 2017 is much more palatable.
So what does this all mean? It means we have to go for the win on Thursday. Yes, Yemen is languishing at the bottom of the table. Yes, they have yet to score a goal. But no, coach Thomas Dooley and his team cannot take them lightly, even though they did beat them in Qatar last June, 2-0. A win or draw against Yemen means it will be mathematically impossible for them to place higher than us in the final standings. A win also strengthens our position in third over Bahrain, who play the Koreans on November 17.
The Yemenis played North Korea tough last month, only falling 1-0 in Pyongyang. In September, they also frustrated the Uzbeks in Tashkent before succumbing to them by the same score. This is not a bad team, they are just stuck in very bad circumstances. The country has been in a 3-cornered civil war since March, with thousands dead, many of whom are civilians, and much of the country devastated.
While most of the Yemeni team play in Yemen's football league, which has probably been on hiatus because of the conflict, they have a midfielder, Fuad Al-Omaisi, who plies his trade in Saudi Arabia; and a forward, Ayman Al-Hagri, who suits up in the Bahraini second tier.
The Philippines enters this clash, as usual, without the ideal preparation. Monday's training lacked several key personnel, like goalie Neil Etheridge, midfielders Stephane Palla and Paul Mulders, defenders Juani Guirado and Jerry Lucena, and forward Javi Patiño. They were all either set to fly in the day later or were just arriving.
Defender/midfielder Luke Woodland was not at Monday's training in McKinley Hill and neither is he on the team list released by the PFF.
Dooley lamented that there would only be two real days of training before the match. He wished that the foreign-based players would only have to come in from two or 3 hours away, and not from 18 hours away like they do now. Patiño, who plays in China, and Iain Ramsay, who is playing for Tractor Sazi in Iran, are the exceptions.
“Those time changes and layovers eat into your body,” bemoaned the coach.
At least, we have Patiño in the team. The Filipino-Spaniard missed the October matches due to injury. He is in-form with his club in China and will be a welcome addition to an outfit that has scored just one goal in its last 270 minutes of qualifying.
“Even if he arrives 10 minutes before the game, he is starting,” remarked Dooley. “That's how badly we need to score goals.”
Dooley said he plans to revert to the 3-4-3 formation he had been using in this campaign until they went for a vanilla 4-defender set in the loss to Bahrain.
Defenders Rob Gier and Simone Rota, who had knee issues and a rib problem respectively, both trained on Monday, but Dooley thinks they have a ways to go before they get to optimal fitness. The coach intimated that he will have to see how Rota does in the following sessions. The coach did, however, stress Gier's value as a positive locker room influence. There did not seem to be any other obvious major injury concerns with the players based on Monday's practice.
The biggest news is the suspension of captain Phil Younghusband because of accumulated yellows. Phil picked up a rash yellow in the dying minutes of last month's 2-0 loss to Bahrain, his second of the campaign.
The good news is that with Phil serving his suspension against the weakest team in the group, his slate will then be clean for the tougher matches in March. The bad news is, we will be without our all-time leading scorer in such a big game. Phil is, contrary to initial reports, not in the roster, and neither will he train with the squad in the lead-up.
Dooley was non-committal in saying who would supplant Phil in wearing the captain's armband, but he did admit that he was considering giving it to Stefan Schrock, who was at the training and looked very sharp.
One thing is certain: For the first time in 3 years, no one with the surname “Younghusband” will be on the senior Philippine team. If you will recall, then-coach Michael Weiss famously excluded them for the 2012 PFF Peace Cup squad after complaining about a lack of commitment from the brothers. They were quickly reinstated afterwards.
But perhaps we shouldn't be too worried. The Azkals went on to win that first PFF Peace Cup. The side will be favorites to come out victorious again on Thursday. But they must deliver in front of the home fans. It's the last game of the year, and everyone wants to finish strong.
Possible starting formation:
Ramsay Patiño Reichelt
Bahadoran Ott Steuble Schrock
Sato Aguinaldo Lucena
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