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How well can the Philippines Men’s National Football Team circle the wagons before taking on Tajikistan on Tuesday night in Dushanbe? That is the million-dollar question. The answer could either lead us on the path to Asian Cup glory or bring us to an uncertain future if we fail to qualify as the group top seed.
The Philippines began AFC Asian Qualifying on a very good note, winning 4-1 against Nepal last March. That puts us atop of the double-round robin Group F comprising of Yemen, Tajikistan, and Nepal thanks to a +3 goal difference. Yemen won the other match in March, defeating the Tajiks 2-1.
But last Wednesday the Azkals succumbed to China in a friendly match 8-1 in Guangzhou. It was a ghastly display of wretched defending, the worst beatdown absorbed by the team since the Pinoys surrendered 13-1 to Indonesia in the 2002 Tiger Cup. The highlights make for painful viewing but at least you can see Misagh’s goal and Patrick Deyto’s penalty save.
What was meant to be a tough game to steel the squad for Tajikistan turned into a confidence-sapping horror show. But to make things worse, injuries bedeviled some key players, ruling them out of Tuesday’smatch.
Hikaru Minegishi, (shin infection), James Younghusband, (ankle), and second-choice left back Jeffrey Christiaens, (knee), are all ruled out of the Tajikistan game, according to coach Thomas Dooley on Sunday night. Younghusband walked off the pitch with a grimace after getting tagged above the ankle, and apparently he isn’t recovering quickly enough to be fit.
Bahadoran also got hurt during the China game but Dooley says he “should be fine” for Tuesday. Daisuke Sato, the perennial starter at left back, is good to go after having problems with “the weather and blood circulation,” according to Dooley.
Ruben Doctora and goalie Ace Villanueva were late additions to the squad and should be in Central Asia at the moment.
But the coach was clear about the defensive frailties that led to the heavy defeat.
“I pointed out to the team that we left Patrick (Deyto) alone, (isolated)” bemoaned the coach. The goalie can hardly be blamed for most of the goals, with the Global keeper only marginally late to parry on maybe two scores. By my count the Chinese attempted 27 shots on goal, 13 of which were on target.
“Our defending is the biggest problem and we have worked on that in 2-3 training sessions and 2-3 meetings,” added Dooley. The team has been in the Tajik capital since Thursday.
“Patrick will be ready, the defense will be ready, and the rest of the team of course, is ready.”
Dooley continues to grouse about the lack of preparation time for the Azkals.
“If we would have trained for a week, if Neil (Etheridge), would have been there, if Javier (Patiño), would have been there, if we would have concentrated more in the beginning (against China), we wouldn’t give so many gifts and yes, we would have looked better.”
Etheridge begged off from these two matches because the possibility of an injury would have jeopardized his transfer from Wallsall to a bigger club, Cardiff City, in the second tier of the English football league.
The Azkals had exactly “one-and-a-half” training sessions in Guangzhou, before the China match, according to the coach. There were no training sessions after the victory against Nepal and before the team left for China because the players were busy with their clubs in the Philippines Football League.
The PFL seems to be a double-edged sword for the Azkals. One one hand it provides them with the high level of competition needed to keep them sharp for international duty. On the other hand it prevents the national team from training together most of the time and also leaves them bone-weary at times.
“Some players had 4 games in 2 weeks, some had 6 games in 3 weeks. There was no rest because after theSaturday and Sunday (league) games we traveled to China and had a game on Wednesday. So hard to get a positive result,” said the coach.
But Tajikistan are desperate for a result as well. In a mild upset they lost to Yemen last March in Doha, Qatar 2-1. (An ongoing civil war in Yemen means their national team must play all of their home games in Qatar.)
The Tajiks are out to prove in front of their home fans that the eleven point gap in the FIFA rankings, (Tajikistan are ranked 137th, as opposed to the Philippines’ 126), will mean little. As this article from the AFC website shows, they will be fired up despite the loss to injury of their midfield engine Nuriddin Davronov.
If the Philippines wins or draws, they stay either on top of the group or second to Yemen, who are favored to win over Nepal in Kathmandu on Tuesday. A loss and they could be in third place or most likely in second. The next match, in Bacolod on September 5 against Yemen, will then feel like a must-win. After that the Philippines play Yemen in Qatar on October 10, face Nepal in Kathmandu on November 14, then finish the campaign with a home game against Tajikistan on March 27 of next year.
It might appear like a daunting task for the team, but Dooley has one ace up his sleeve: Javier Patiño will suit up. The Henan Jianye striker did not play last week against China but he is set to start on Tuesday. Dooley says the Filipino-Spaniard “looks great” in training, and should he add to his international tally of 4 goals, the Philippines has a superb chance of victory. Patiño scored last March against Nepal.
The team is set to bounce back from defeat. All that is needed are Azkals fans to watch. Here is the live streaming link as provided by the Tajikistan Football Federation. – Rappler.com
Tajikistan vs Philippines
AFC Asian Cup Qualifier
11:55pm Philippine time, Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.