Depleted Azkals face tough qualifier versus Uzbekistan

FIFA World Cup 2018 / AFC Asian Cup 2019 Joint Qualifier
Thursday, March 24, 2016
Bunyodkor Stadium, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
9:00 pm kickoff Philippine time
LIVE coverage on ABS-CBN Sports+Action

“Everyone was at practice,” said Azkals coach Thomas Dooley over the phone. “Everyone who could walk.”

The beleaguered German-American coach has faced his share of tough assignments as a player and a coach. But this Thursday'smatch up with Uzbekistan is different. We haven't seen this many injured Filipinos since the battle scenes in Heneral Luna. 

Where do we begin? Let's start with the big guns. Neither Phil Younghusband nor Stephan Schrock are making the trip to Uzbekistan. Younghusband has had a nagging injury that has kept off most of the UFL Cup for Loyola. Schrock has a thigh issue and did not start in Ceres' 1-1 draw at Tampines Rovers last week in Singapore. He only came on with about 7 minutes to play. Fortunately both may be ready for the final Group H qualifier in Rizal Memorial on March 29. Accent on “may.” 

According to Dooley, when he spoke to Fil-Austrian wide player Stephan Palla over the phone, Palla was bedridden with a back problem. Palla will miss both of these last two qualifying matches. 

Kevin Ingreso got hurt playing for Ceres in the AFC Cup, so he is also a no-go.

Other players who are nursing ailments of varying degrees of severity are Amani Aguinaldo, (groin), Daisuke Sato, (foot), and Patrick Reichelt (knee). But those 3 are likely to play on Thursday barring any other problems. 

Misagh Bahadoran and Manny Ott have the Holy Week off. The two midfielders are suspended for the Uzbekistan game on accumulated yellow cards. Dooley asserts that they will be ready for the game on March 29

What about veterans Paul Mulders, Jerry Lucena, and Rob Gier? All have called time on their international football careers within the last few weeks. Lucena, who turns 36 in August, has done his shoulder and it appears he could be stepping away from all kinds of football, not just the international version. Dooley says Lucena will coach a youth team next season.

The decision of Gier, 35, after months of injury-induced inactivity, was not completely unexpected. The retirement of Mulders, also 35, is a bit of a shock, especially since he started for Ceres against Rovers last week after his own recent fitness struggles. Had Mulders chosen to be in this roster he could have very well started. But having said that, Dooley says he has another knock he is dealing with now. 

I've seen a few comments on Facebook from Pinoy fans who struggle to comprehend why these players could walk away from representing the country. But in reality, international football can be a tough grind. 

How would you like it if, on the days off from your real job, you had to do sideline instead of spending time with your family? And that sideline paid a fraction of what your real job paid? And the sideline entailed lots of long, tedious travel all over the world? And if you made mistakes in that sideline hundreds of people flame you on social media? And there is a big risk of getting hurt in that sideline and not being able to do your real work?

International football is an honor and a privilege, but it also takes its toll. By the time a player's body is in its 30s, the drudgery of international play can get old. These 3 men have given their all and deserve our respect and gratitude. 

Another player who could get a taste of international play is is Global's new signing Omid Nazari, a Swedish-born son of an Iranian father and a Filipino mother. Nazari has been shining in the UFL Cup as Global topped its group, and the striker has acquired a Filipino passport.

Nazari has 5 caps for Iran already, but none were in official competitions. That allows him to still switch allegiance to the Philippines. But alas, Dooley says FIFA has yet to give Nazari the green light to play for us, so he can't play for us yet. It's a shame because Nazari is a goal poacher of some ability. 

There is some good news: Juani Guirado, another Ceres starter against Tampines, is back from sick bay, and although Simone Rota was left off the initial list the PFF posted on its website, he is very much on the team. Javier Patino is also in Uzbekistan and could possibly start. These 3 veterans will need to do their best to corral an Uzbekistan team that rocked the Philippines 5-1 in Bulacan last June. 

Many of the other players called up to the 34-man training pool are youngsters, including some very fresh faces who are only known to the cognoscenti. UP star Daniel Gadia is one of those who caught Thomas Dooley's eye. 

“I was really impressed with him in training. He looks more ready now. He was aggressive, organized well and talks more. I like him a lot,” said the coach. 

Gadia, who played in the SEA Games last year, sparkled for UP in their 2-0 win over DLSU in the UAAP last Saturday, assisting Kintaro Miyagi's goal. The midfielder, who also plays for Loyola, is not going to Uzbekistan, though.

But Jim Ashley Flores, formerly from San Beda, is on his way to Tashkent. Flores, from Laguna, was unable to make it to the SEA Games roster because of paperwork difficulties. The pacey midfielder was superb in the U23 team's Australia camp, where he found the net several times in friendlies. 

Another promising player is Jorrel Aristorenas, who Dooley said was excellent in training. Sadly he is also nursing an injury and it's not clear if he is going to be at the game. 

Ohjay Clarino of Global is definitely suiting up. The striker brings a physical presence whenever he steps out into the field. He played in the 2011 SEA Games. Global's Filipino-Italian Dennis Villanueva is also in the mix. There are two other precocious Global players on the list of call-ups for training, centerback Marco Casambre and Mark Winhoffer. Neither are going to Tashkent but both are with the U22 NT in a training camp in Singapore.

Another tantalizing prospect is Kouchi Belgira, a dazzling 19-year-old Filipino-Japanese midfielder from Loyola. It's not known, however, if he is going to Uzbekistan. 

But the young players likely to make the starting 11 are Luke Woodland, OJ Porteria, and Sato. 

The call up squad has raised eyebrows with the prevalence of unknown kids. This is especially notable when you consider players who did not make the cut. James Younghusband is absent, as are Balot Doctora, Miguel Tanton, and Antonio Ugarte. But that's international selection for you. There will always be an endless debate over who should, and should not make the team. 

“These players have a chance to show that they deserve to be on the team,” says the coach, who cites speed as one of his most important virtues he looks for in selecting a team. 

Dooley has one ace up his sleeve: perhaps the most overqualified international assistant coach in the world in Aris Caslib. The PFF technical director has two stints under his belt as Azkals coach, and it was under his mentorship that the team won its first ever ASEAN championship game in 2004, against Timor Leste. Coach Aris also runs the successful San Beda program that until this year lorded it over the NCAA. Caslib is highly-respected in local circles, and will give plenty of valuable input in the game plan. 

“Four eyes can see more than two. It's good to have another opinion,” says Dooley of his new wingman. 

Pascal Zuberbuhler, the Swiss goalkeeping coach, is back in the staff for these games, although Dooley says that his club commitments will prevent him from staying with the team permanently. That job will could go to Jon Pascua, a Spanish goalkeeping coach who is already here training Global's netminders. 

The Philippines are in third in Group H, one ahead of Bahrain, who play Yemen and Uzbekistan next. Bahrain will be favored to get to 9 points against Yemen, so the Philippines needs points in these last two games to grab the third place spot that automatically gets them in to the next round-robin of AFC Asian Cup qualifiers next year. If they finish fourth in the group they will have to see what happens in the other 7 groups. Only the best 4 fourth-placers make it to the next round. The next 4 fourth-placers and all 8 fifth placers must go through a playoff stage. (Yemen can no longer catch us so thankfully we are not finishing fifth.) 

To complicate matters further, one group, Group F, has 4 teams instead of 5, because of Indonesia's suspension meant they couldn't join. That might mean that all points taken from fifth-place teams will be deleted from the accounting. We have 3 points against Yemen from that road win last June.

When I spoke to Dan Palami months ago he was confident that we had stockpiled enough points to avoid the playoff round. Dooley was not so optimistic. 

“No, I don't think we have enough. We have to do something,” he added with some concern.

“The playoff stage would be a good test, but it's better if we can avoid it.”

What the Azkals cannot avoid is the hostile crowd, chilly temperatures, (15 degrees celsius), and the might of a home team looking for a repeat of the 5-1 thrashing from last June. Dooley will need a perfect game plan and superb execution to get a result. 

Ramsay Porteria Steuble
Villanueva Woodland
Sato Guirado Aguinaldo Rota


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