Azkals face uphill task in brutal World Cup qualifying road trip

MANILA, Philippines - The skies over the Azkals' afternoon practice last Friday in McKinley Hill Stadium were a gloomy shade of slate-gray. Moisture hung over the air like a damp rag. On the turf, exactly ten national team players, in blue shirts, toiled amongst the cones and other training equipment. It threatened to pour. 

Was it a metaphor for the Azkals' upcoming road swing for World Cup qualifying? They take on Korea DPR in Pyongyang on Thursday then face Bahrain 5 days later in Riffa, near the capital city of Manama. Storm clouds much? 

Lets take inventory of the various and sundry issues that are bedeviling the national team at the moment. 

The lingering psychological damage of the Uzbekistan loss. The Azkals succumbed to a rampant Uzbek side in their last qualifier, falling 5-1 in Bulacan. They must rebound and somehow set aside the fact that when Uzbekistan last went to Pyongyang for a qualifier, they fell behind 4-0 at the half. Only two second-half goals brought some respectability to the scoreline for the central Asians. 

DPR is a perfect 3-0 in qualifying and are looking to get two wins in October, against the Philippines and then versus Group H minnows Yemen on the 13, also in Pyongyang.

The team's mental toughness will be tested. 

“We only have a chance if everyone steps up,” admitted Thomas Dooley. 

Javier Patiño is once again sidelined. The Philippines' main weapon seems to have injured his hamstring in a September 20 match for his club side Henan Jianye, according to Cedelf Tupas. He has been left off the roster for the Pyongyang match. Dooley seems to hold out some hope that he will join the team for the Bahrain match. 

“We should watch carefully if he trains next week,” says the gaffer. “I want him to be there in Bahrain. If he plays for them, (Henan), he should play for us.”

Patiño gave the Azkals one of their best chances in the match against Uzbekistan, a first-half glancing header that just sprayed wide of the post. He was also involved in both of the goals in the Yemen game. 

Dooley can perhaps count on Patrick Reichelt to supplant him up top. Reichelt is pretty good in the air. Another obvious option is to yank Phil Younghusband out from his exile deep in the center of the formation and station him at the apex of the Azkal attack. Phil does prefer to operate either in the hole or at attacking midfield, so a switch to the number 9 spot is, in effect, going from one extreme to the other. It's all up to Dooley. 

Another option is to use veteran Paul Mulders as the focal point of the offense.

The preparation is a logistical nightmare. There were 10 players suited up for training on Friday, namely Younghusband, Reichelt, Martin Steuble, OJ Porteria, Iain Ramsay, Luke Woodland, Mulders, Manny Ott, Simone Rota and Kenshiro Daniels. Rota is still in the last stages of recovery from a rib injury. I jokingly asked him if I could punch him in the torso and he said “no.” Rota will not go to Pyongyang but seems set to make it to the Bahrain game. 

So of those ten, only 9 will be fit to play against Korea DPR, and of that 9, only Ramsay, who plays for Tractor Sazi in the Iranian league, has been getting match action of late. The rest of this bunch has been away from competitive football since the UFL Cup ended. Porteria tells me that Kaya has not been training since lifting the crown. 

The u0022logistical nightmareu0022 of their preparations didn't prevent the Azkals from having fun in practice. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

The u0022logistical nightmareu0022 of their preparations didn't prevent the Azkals from having fun in practice.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

The European-based Azkals will meet the rest of the team en route to Korea. The Global players, Amani Aguinaldo, Dennis Villanueva, Patrick Deyto, Misagh Bahadoran, and Daisuke Sato were not present because they were playing in the Singapore Cup, where they lost their opening leg of their semifinal to Albirex Niigata's Singapore team, 1-0. The Global Azkals joined the team for one last training in the Philippines on Sunday before jetting off.

There was a long layover in Bangkok, I understand, on the way to Beijing, and eventually Pyongyang. The team will only be able to train twice together, on Tuesday and Wednesday, before the game on Thursday. 

To make things worse, Dooley said that as of Friday, he was not sure if his goalkeeper coach, presumably Australian Jim Fraser, would have the visa that would allow him to travel with the team to the North Korean capital. 

And if that's not bad enough, the side has to haul itself to Bahrain after Thursday, to play a rested home side on the 13th that will host Uzbekistan on Thursday. So we will play the second game of a road swing against a team that will play their second of a home stand. FIFA schedulers have thrown us a curve ball, indeed. 

I'm told that there will once again be a long Bangkok layover on the way to Manama. There initially was a plan to have the team sleep one night in Manila before traveling to the gulf, but that has been nixed.

Jet lag, a lack of match fitness, a paucity of team preparation, and travel back and forth through several time zones. Gee, and you thought Gilas had it bad.

Dooley appears to want to stick to his three-defender scheme. The American coach looked like an innovative genius when the Pinoys went 2-0 with his unorthodox 3-4-3/5-3-2 formation. But after Uzbekistan torched us in Bulacan, there is a case to go for a more conservative plan. Dooley doesn't seem to think so. 

“For me, when you play 3 at the back, it's more secure,” said the coach. He may have a point. A clogged midfield theoretically makes it harder for an opponent to get into their final third, and besides, the formation is supposed to have three centerbacks on defense with the side-backs shuttling back and forth on offense and defense to help out the 3. But more than one experienced coach has told me that the formation is ill-advised, especially against such stiff opposition and with so much at stake. 

“The formation is not a problem,” insisted Dooley on Friday. He went on to say that basic lapses in positioning and decision-making were what doomed the team against Uzbekistan. 

“These were basic (mistakes.) I thought the players knew this,” lamented the coach. But he added “these are things that are easy to fix.”

“The formation is a number. It's really about the knowledge,” Added Dooley. 

And it's with all this baggage that the team will venture into Kim Jong Un's backyard to face Korea DPR. I have yet to hear that the Koreans are making a live feed available for us to watch, by the way. 

But Azkals fans should not be too pessimistic. If it's any consolation, despite the clouds, it did not rain that day in McKinley Hill. Perhaps the sun will shine on Dooley's troops in Pyongyang and Bahrain too.

The Philippines Men’s Football Team is up against a myriad of obstacles in its path. But that's oftentimes when it has done its best work. – Rappler.com 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.