Azkals get ready for huge qualifier against Tajikistan
The big game is against Tajikistan on Tuesday, March 27, 7:30 pm at Rizal Memorial. This is an AFC Asian Cup qualifier, the last of 6 round-robin group matches that began last year.
The Philippines is atop Group F, undefeated with 9 points. Tajikistan and Yemen are behind them on 7 points. Nepal, on 2 points, is holding up the table.
The top two in the group progress to the final stage of the AFC Asian Cup in U.A.E. in January. If we finish as one of the top two teams, we punch our tickets to the biggest competition for Asian national teams for the very first time.
The Azkals need only a draw to get to 10 points and make the top two. A win assures us of finishing first in the group as a bonus. A loss also gets us to the big stage should Nepal manage an unlikely draw or win against Yemen in Oman, the other game in our group going down that day.
Last year in the reverse fixture the Azkals beat Tajikistan in a wild 4-3 slugfest in Dushanbe.
The Philippines will also play a tune up game on Thursday, March 22, also at Rizal Memorial against Fiji. It will be a proper international friendly with ranking points at stake. The Pacific Islanders are ranked 168th in the world against 122 for the Pinoys.
Both games will be carried live on Liga, ABS-CBN's new sports channel, which is on 86 for Sky Cable subscribers. The game will also be on Liga HD, which is 183 on Sky.
It looks like S+A, the ABS-CBN sports channel with a bigger reach, cannot air either game because of previous commitments to show the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League, which usually has games on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
I am told by Azkals marketing that the team is working on a live stream.
Tickets are available at SM Tickets outlets. The word is that the match on the 27th is selling well and could be sold out. The bleachers in Rizal Memorial, because they don't have attached numbered seating, cannot be used as per AFC rules. Only the grandstand will be open.
Left-sided defender Stephan Palla, who is on that list, cannot come because of back issues. Curt Dizon, a left-footed striker, was omitted because of a fractured forearm. That means Jhan Jhan Melliza moves a notch up the depth chart at the forward position. The Ilonggo has recovered well from his own injury woes and scored in Saturday's training scrimmage.
Veteran Paul Mulders was at training but did not participate in the main activities. He is obviously nursing some knocks.
Filipino-Spanish ace Javi Patiño is coming but is still working himself to fitness after knee trouble. The striker was jettisoned by Chinese club Henan Jianye. Word is he may find his way back to Thailand, where he previously starred for Buriram United.
“I told him he should come, we are gonna make him fit,” says Azkals coach Thomas Dooley.
“He doesn't have to play 90 minutes. He has to be there just to scare them (the opponent),” continues Dooley.
“We will train him individually to get him fit, give him confidence with the ball so he can make the quick turns and sprints so he can really play. We have 5 days with him hopefully, and we will make a decision right before (the match). If he feels good enough maybe we can make him start. If not then we put him on the bench. It all depends on how he looks.”
Neil Etheridge will not play against Fiji but is pretty much a sure starter in the qualifier on the 27th. Etheridge has been on fire for Cardiff City as the Bluebirds are close to gaining promotion to the top flight English Premier League.
The coach says the netminder has problems with his knee and back that required him to go to the hospital. Dooley says he and the club have agreed to allow the goalie to have his treatment in Wales then arrive the day after the Fiji game.
Two new selections are Filipino-Danish goalie Michael Falkesgaard and midfielder Angelo Marasigan, a dynamic Belgian-Pinoy who is impressing in the PFL with his speed and hard work. Dooley says Falkesgaard, who plays for Bangkok United in Thailand, will probably get a half of play against Fiji. The other keepers in camp are Pat Deyto and Nick O'Donnell.
The usual suspects, namely Phil and James Younghusband of Davao, Manny and Mike Ott of Ceres, Iain Ramsey, now playing for Felda in Malaysia, Hikaru Minegishi, who now plies his trade in Thailand, Romania-based Daisuke Sato, and Misagh Bahadoran from Perak are expected to be ready for duty.
No Stephan Schrock since he has fallen out with the coach. But Ceres left back Jeff Christiaens has un-retired and is back in the squad.
The Game Plan
Four years ago the Azkals were in a similar spot in the Suzuki Cup. After solid group stage wins against Laos and Indonesia, the Philippines needed only a draw in the final round-robin match versus Vietnam in Hanoi to finish top of the group and avoid Thailand in the semis. Dooley eschewed a defensive stance and came out with his usual aggressive, positive play.
Vietnam won 3-1. The Philippines finished second in the group and lost to Thailand in the semis. At least one prominent Filipino coach that I know of privately questioned the tactics in that match.
But when reminded of that game, Dooley enumerates the errors in execution that led to those concessions. He is adamant that the team will play for the win against Tajikistan.
“I want to win the game. I don't want to play for a tie. You can't play for a tie and then in the last couple of minutes they score and then you're done,” explained the former USA captain.
The Azkals won't be taking Fiji lightly either.
“Even if its Fiji we have to be careful in the back. If we lose versus Fiji we won't have confidence. If we try what we do in training versus Fiji and we win, it should give us confidence. On the other hand if you do that well, and you think everything goes on its own against Tajikistan, you may have a big surprise. There's always this fine line.”
Thomas Dooley's contract expires after the Tajikistan game. When asked about a possible extension, Dooley admitted that “this is not about me.”
It is clear that the German-American is down for another term with the Philippines. He joined the side in early 2014, so it has been 4 years, rather long-ish for an international coach.
“It would not make sense to not give me a job either if you lose, (sic)” said Dooley on Saturday.
English is the coach's second language after German, so at times he has difficulty expressing himself. One can imagine he meant to say “ it would not make sense to not give me a job whether we win or lose.”
“When you look at the development of the team and my involvement with the team in the last two years, every time when we had problems, I didn't make a decision at all,” continues Dooley.
“So I'm not getting any help from anything and we still haven't lost a game.”
Dooley is likely referring to the team's unbeaten record in AFC Asian Cup qualifying. The team did lose matches in a pocket tournament in Taiwan last year but he wasn't the coach for those games; Marlon Maro was.
The coach certainly feels he deserves to lead the team to the AFC Asian Cup and beyond.
“I hope we are going win that game, I hope I get a two-year contract, and the biggest wish is that they listen to me,” said the coach, referring to his suggestions for better match preparations that he feels have gone unheeded.
All of the issues will be put on the back burner on the 27th, when Dooley hopes to have his charges in tip-top form.
“My job is to prepare the players against Tajikistan and we need to be focused 100%, every single one of us for 90 minutes, to do the best we can do.”
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH