THE real strength of this latest Philippine men’s football team will be known on Sunday when the Azkals open their Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup Qualifiers campaign against Cambodia at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
The Azkals parade their newest recruit in Spanish second-league striker Javier Patiño, standout returnees in midfielder Stephan Schrock and goalkeeper Roland Muller, and other fellow prolific Filipino-foreigners based abroad in their 7:30 p.m. meeting with the Cambodians.
They join forces with local-based holdovers led by 2012 Challenge Cup Golden Boot winner Phil Younghusband and skipper Chieffy Caligdong.
Fulham substitute and first-choice ‘keeper’ Neil Etheridge is expected to sit out the match as he serves a one-game suspension.
The Filipinos and Cambodians settled for a scoreless draw in their last meeting in October 2010. But with a full-strength squad this time, the Azkals are heavily favored against their Southeast Asian neighbors, who are coming off a 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Turkmenistan during the tournament opener Friday.
“Because of the presence of our strong players, we are somehow perceived as the favorites. However, we must not lose focus and we should not be complacent,” Azkals manager Dan Palami said.
“In any case, even if we have the strong players, the Azkals will play like underdogs, like the hungry dogs they have been in the last few years because we’ve always been hungry for titles,” the businessman from Tacloban added.
Following the withdrawal of Brunei in the three-day tournament, the rest of the three teams in Group E were given 3-0 wins for three points each.
Only the top team in the competition automatically advances to the main tournament in Maldives next year. The two best runners-up from the five groups will also gain entry.
To avoid complications, the Azkals have to win their two games to advance to the tournament that stakes a lone berth to the 2015 Asian Cup, where the region’s benchmark squads Japan, South Korea, and Australia compete.