Azkals learn to live without mainstays for tough China, Tajikistan games
The men's national football team is back in action during this FIFA international window with a pair of matches. Mainstays Phil and James Younghusband, Misagh Bahadoran, Manny Ott, Iain Ramsay, and Daisuke Sato are suiting up. See the original roster here, although there have been some changes since.
China will be a tough test as they are currently ranked 82nd in the world while the Philippines are 126th. The hosts are coached by Marcelo Lippi, who mentored Italy to a World Cup win in 2006. All but one of their players plays in the very competitive Chinese league. Only striker Zhang Yuning plies his trade outside of the Middle Kingdom. He plays for Vitesse in the Netherlands.
31-year old Gao Lin is one of their big threats with 18 goals in 91 caps but keep an eye on Huang Bowen. The midfielder, Gao's teammate in Guangzhou Evergrande, scored a brilliant volley goal in a match I commentated on 2 years ago and I believe he has tremendous quality.
Evergrande usually packs the 58,500-seat Tianhe stadium for their home games and it should be no different for this international match.
But the big game is the qualifier versus Tajikistan. The Philippines got off to a great start in their AFC Asian Cup qualifying with that solid 4-1 win against Nepal in Rizal Memorial last March. The Tajiks are 11 slots behind us in the FIFA rankings and one imagines we may not feel the advantage on the 13th.
Tajikistan haven't played very much of late. Their last game was a 1-0 win over Afghanistan in November. Eight months previous to that they drew Bahrain 1-1.
Coach Thomas Dooley says the Central Asians are fast and strong, like Uzbekistan, but perhaps at a slightly lower level.
It is imperative that Dooley's charges get a result on Dushanbe, but they will be without some important cogs.
Stephan Schrock and Martin Steuble are out of favor with the coach and are not selected. Dooley says Javi Patiño, whose knowledge of the Chinese league would have been invaluable in the first game, may be unavailable for at least the China game due to injury, although he was originally listed in the squad released by PFF. It's still unclear if he can follow for the qualifier.
Kaya FC's Filipino-American midfielder, Antonio Ugarte, was picked for this side but a hamstring injury has ruled him out.
But the one most conspicuous in his absence will be goalie Neil Etheridge. The 27-year old has just signed a contract with English second-tier side Cardiff City after a spell in Walsall, a tier below. (Cardiff is actually in Wales but they play in the English league system.) Dooley says the keeper does not want to risk injury before his contract officially begins with the Welsh team on July 1, so he has declined an invitation to be part of the squad.
“I'm disappointed,” says Dooley. “This is the most important game for the country.”
“If it was only the friendly versus China I could understand. But this is a qualifier against Tajikistan,” added the German-American coach.
Dooley said he was once in a similar situation with the United States Men's National Team and chose country over club, costing him a starting position with his team at the time, Schalke.
“I guess everyone is different,” he added.
Etheridge explained his side via a phone call on Saturday.
“This is the biggest move of my career,” said the goalie. “Legally my contract does not start until July 1. Before that I am still a Walsall player. If anything was to happen between now and July 1, Cardiff could turn around and put the new contract on hold until I'm fully fit.”
“The bottom line is, I need to hit the ground running with Cardiff. I cannot afford any major or minor injuries until then.”
“I have always put the Azkals first for the past nine years. But this is such a big move going to Cardiff. For once I have to step back and put my career first.”
Etheridge says Cardiff manager Neil Warnock has told by his namesake that he will start and that the number 1 jersey is his to lose. Cardiff finished 12th out of 24 teams in the Championship last year and are making a push to return to the top-flight Premiership where they last played in 2014. The top two sides in the Championship are automatically promoted, while a third team also gets nudged up the pyramid via a playoff series between the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth placed teams.
While Etheridge would not reveal the size of his compensation in Cardiff, he does say that some players in that league earn up to GBP40,000 a week, and that this deal is better than his contract with Fulham, where he was a backup.
“This contract is surreal to me,” said Etheridge. “It hasn't quite sunk in yet.”
But the goalie says he had a very cordial phone call about this issue with Dooley.
“I understand where he is coming from, and I hope everything will be okay,”says Etheridge.
Neil also says he will be 100% available to play for the Philippines in their home qualifier against Yemen in Bacolod on September 5. But he admits that “it's out of my hands” if the coach will select him.
When asked if he would still consider Etheridge for duty after these games, Dooley replied “of course, but he may have to fight for his starting spot. It's all about performance.”
Deyto will almost certainly be the starter for these games. Cover comes in the form of his back up at Global, Nick O'Donnell. FC Meralco Manila keeper Ace Villanueva was originally listed as the third keeper but eventually was omitted from the lineup.
Global has lost two big games recently, a 3-2 defeat in Singapore to Home United in the AFC Cup, and a 1-0 league loss to Ceres in Bacolod. There were late concessions in both games and Deyto has been the subject of some stick in Facebook fan forums. But the former DLSU standout did make key saves in the Ceres match and could not be blamed for any of the Home United goals in the AFC Cup.
Dooley says he gives his “full confidence” to the Global keeper.
Roland Muller announced his international retirement shortly before the March international window and thus is not available for selection.
Dooley even admitted last Saturday that he is willing to try and corral Filipino-Frenchman goalie Alphonse Areola of French powerhouse Paris Saint Germain. Areola has played for France in every youth age group but can still switch allegiances in the senior level since he has yet to represent Les Bleus in a competitive senior match.
The team flew to China on Monday. They will arrive in Tajikistan on the 9th and do the bulk of their training there before the qualifier. Because of club play the national team has not been able to have any training sessions since the Nepal victory in March.
“The longer I'm here the less time I have to train with them,” admitted Dooley.
There is no word on TV coverage for the games but a source in the PFF says a livestream for the Tajikistan match is most likely.
While the PFL grabs most of the attention at the moment, for the next few days our national team returns to the spotlight. Let's hope they deliver the performance needed to bring us a step closer to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
China PR vs Philippines
FIFA International Friendly
June 7, 2017
Tianhe Stadium, Guangzhou
Kickoff time TBC
Tajikistan vs Philippines
AFC Asian Cup Qualifier
June 13, 2017
Central Republican Stadium
Kickoff 11:00 pm Philippine time.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH. – Rappler.com