FACING their toughest test yet, Philippine Azkals skipper Phil Younghusband hopes the team can sustain the momentum of the two early victories in the World Cup Qualifiers as they go up against powerhouse Uzbekistan on Sept. 8 at Philippine Sports Stadium.
The Azkals stunned Bahrain, 2-1, at home, before blanking Yemen, 2-0, in Doha, Qatar to gain a share of the lead with North Korea in Group H, considered as one of the toughest groups of the tournament that also serves as a qualifier for the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE.
“We are in a good position after the two wins, but more importantly, we have some confidence going forward,” said Younghusband, the country's leading international scorer with 42 goals, who turned 28 last Monday.
“There are no easy games in this group. We know we would need to play better and work harder against Uzbekistan.”
The Azkals achieved their highest ranking of 124 last month but the Uzbeks are still ranked 49 notches higher at No. 75 by Fifa, with some of their standouts playing in Russia.
The top team in the group will secure a place in the third round together with the four best second-placers from the eight brackets.
The 12 teams in the third round will also gain slots to the AFC Asian Cup in 2019. Asia has four spots in the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia which means the top two from each of the brackets in the third round will qualify.
Under coach Thomas Dooley, the Azkals thrived despite playing a new formation with Younghusband needing to adjust following his switch from striker to attacking midfielder.
The switch allows Younghusband to see more of the ball, giving him attacking freedom which proved key in setting up the goals against Bahrain.
“There are a few players that are not playing in their natural positions, but we got players who can adapt and I think that’s good for the team,” Younghusband added.
The skipper sees the Azkals getting better with more games playing with their new system. The team had three new players in Iain Ramsay, Stephan Palla and Luke Woodland inserted into the starting lineup against Yemen.
“It is not easy to learn a formation within such a short period of time,” Younghusband said, pointing out that the Azkals only had less than two weeks to work together before the Bahrain match last June. “But the new players have made the team stronger and it gives you more confidence knowing you have these players on your team. It's all about every one giving 100 percent.”
Tickets for the Azkals vs. Uzbekistan game at the Philippine Sports Stadium on September 8 are now available at www.ticketworld.com.ph . Tickets are priced P531.80, P331.14 and P125.40.