THE Azkals can smell blood.
Starving for international glory, the Philippine men’s football team tries to pounce on a golden opportunity as it battles Palestine on Saturday at the National Stadium in Male for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup crown.
In what could be the biggest game in Philippine football history, the Azkals take on the Palestinians at midnight (PH time) for the lone ticket to Australia where the grand AFC Asian Cup is set to be held in January.
The Azkals are riding high on a historic 3-2 semifinal triumph over host Maldives in a classic match early Wednesday morning that put them on the verge of crashing the party for Asia's big boys.
But reaching the final is certainly not enough. They came here to win the whole thing to compete against the cream of the crop in the continent.
“That is not a secret,” Azkals coach Thomas Dooley said. “We came over here to win the Challenge Cup. We want to play at the next level which is the Asian Cup so we want to play against those big guys, not to win something, but to play with them and that is our biggest goal.”
Only one obstacle remains.
The Filipino booters, ranked 140th in the world, meet a Palestinian squad that is 25 spots below them in the rankings.
The Azkals though, also beat them, 3-2, in the last edition two years ago in the battle-for-third match.
But they are facing a similarly hungry squad that is also in its maiden finals appearance.
Aside from having a legitimate offensive threat in Ashraf Nu’man, who is tied for the scoring lead with three goals, the Palestinians boast a seemingly impenetrable defense that has yet to concede a goal in four games in the tournament.
The Azkals, however, have their own standouts they can count on. Despite missing the services of a handful of key players, plenty of heroes like Chris Greatwich and Roland Muller have surfaced.
Phil Younghusband and Patrick Reichelt are expected to provide the scoring punch anew. Stephan Schrock, despite nursing a hamstring injury, and Martin Steuble handle the playmaking duties, while skipper Rob Gier anchors the defense.
But it will all boil down to desire and heart - qualities which the Azkals definitely have.