THE drive toward continental football relevance shifts to a higher gear for the Philippines on Wednesday when the Azkals tangle with host Maldives in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup semifinals at the National Stadium in Male.
Oozing with confidence after topping Group B with two victories, including an impressive 2-0 shutout of Turkmenistan last Saturday, the Azkals hope to move on the threshold of realizing their lofty goal of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup.
Kickoff of the one-game semifinal is set at midnight (PH time) with the winner earning the right to face the survivor of the other pairing between Group A top seed Palestine and Afghanistan.
The Filipino booters are 13 spots ahead of the Maldivians in the world rankings, but they are bracing for a tough challenge against an opponent which will have the home crowd behind it.
“Facing Maldives is a cause of concern,” Azkals manager Dan Palami admitted. “But they lost one of their games here so it's not impossible to beat them.”
Maldives lost to Myanmar, 2-3, in its first Group A match before defeating Kyrgyzstan, 2-0, and holding Palestine to a scoreless draw to advance to the next round.
The Thomas Dooley-mentored Azkals likewise started their group stage campaign slowly, settling for a goalless draw with Afghanistan before gaining steam in their last two assignments, beating Laos, 2-0, and the Turkmen.
One thing going against the Azkals, however, is they continue to be undermanned. Already without injured Neil Etheridge and Juani Guirado, the Filipino booters are also set to miss Dennis Cagara and Balot Doctora.
Cagara, the Filipino-Danish left-back, is leaving for his native Denmark to help his professional club, Lyngby Boldklub, in its fight for promotion to the Danish Superliga. The Danish squad is just two points out of second spot in the second tier.
“We just have to cope with whatever it is we have to face,” Palami said. “The guys who have been sent in have shown that they can handle the pressure.”
Daisuke Sato, the 19-year-old Filipino-Japanese dynamo, could start in Cagara’s place in the starting XI, which is expected to be led by Stephan Schrock, Phil Younghusband, and Patrick Reichelt.