THE Philippines’ ambitious quest for Asian football glory begins on Tuesday when the Azkals kick off their Asian Football Challenge Cup campaign against Afghanistan in Addu City, Maldives.
After months of preparation and waiting, the Filipino booters finally get to test the mettle of fellow emerging footballing nations in the continent all vying for the lone ticket to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, a prestigious tournament one rung lower than the World Cup as far as the region is concerned.
“Winning this tournament allows us to be considered as one of the top teams in Asia already and that is something we have been looking forward to,” Azkals manager Dan Palami said.
And the Azkals start their daunting journey against the reigning South Asian football champion and the top-ranked squad in the tournament at 128th.
It will be another late night for local Azkals fans as kickoff is slated at midnight (Philippine time).
Fresh from a weeklong training camp in Bahrain, the Thomas Dooley-mentored Azkals are aiming for no less than a victory, but they will have to manage with the absence of standouts Phil Younghusband and Rob Gier.
Younghusband, the country’s top scorer, and Gier, a rock on defense, are suspended for yellow-card accumulation, incurred as early as last year in March when the Azkals topped the Group E qualifiers in Manila.
Also without Filipino-Spanish striker Javier Patiño, whose Thai club Buriram United refused to release him, the Azkals will have to count on Europe-based stalwarts Stephan Schrock, Neil Etheridge, Juani Guirado, Dennis Cagara, Jerry Lucena, and Martin Steuble as well as local United Football League counterparts led by Patrick Reichelt, James Younghusband, and Anton del Rosario.
Teenagers Kenshiro Daniels and Amani Aguinaldo are also late additions to the 24-man lineup that traveled to the island country after Nate Burkey and Misagh Bahadoran went down with injuries.