Cedelf P. Tupas
RANGOON— A Philippine team slowly finding fluidity in its play faces a formidable Palestine side considered a heavy favorite in the AFC Challenge Cup group stage qualifying here.
Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. (5 p.m. in the Philippines) at the Thuwana Stadium with the Azkals looking to build on their superb second-half performance in the 1-1 draw against host Myanmar.
The draw still stings for the Azkals, considering that Myanmar managed to sneak in a “lucky goal” in the final minute of injury time.
But skipper Aly Borromeo and team manager Dan Palami challenged the Azkals to forget about the result and shift their attention to Palestine, which debut impressively in a 2-nil drubbing of Bangladesh.
A victory will put the Azkals in prime position to gain one of the two spots staked for the main tournament next year.
Palestine is on top of the group with three points, while the Philippines in Myanmar share second with a point each.
“Palestine will be very difficult,” said Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss, who considered the Azkals lucky to have escaped with a draw against Myanmar.
A loss could put the Azkals in danger of another exit from the qualifying tournament, like three years ago in Iloilo City. The Azkals will still face Bangladesh on Friday.
Although the Azkals have not played Palestine, several players watched the opening minutes of the Palestine-Bangladesh duel Monday and expressed confidence that they can overcome the Middle East team.
“Palestine will be the most difficult game in the group,” goalkeeper Neil Etheridge told the Inquirer.
“They will be a big challenge mentally and physically but we have a good chance of winning against them.”
Boosting the Azkals’ chances is the arrival of Filipino-Danish player Jerry Lucena, who will finally make his debut for his father’s country, after playing for Denmark at the youth level.
With Lucena’s arrival, the starting XI could change again for the Azkals with Borromeo returning to his centerback position beside Rob Gier after playing the defensive midfield against Myanmar.
Lucena could pair up with Simon Greatwich, whose passing and tackling proved crucial for the Azkals in the second half against Myanmar, in the holding midfield position.
Anton del Rosario, who played centerback last Monday, will return to rightback behind James Younghusband, while Ray Jonsson will play behind Chieffy Caligdong again at the left.
Yanti Barsales, who made an impact as a second-half substitute, has been given the go-signal to play despite the bruises on his chest and the cuts near his jaw following an ugly tackle from the Myanmar keeper.
Angel Aldeguer Guirado, who dazzled the crowd here with his skill and pace, skipped training Tuesday but is expected to make another start.
Palestine, Borromeo said, plays a more direct game and the Azkals could counter this by playing more on the ground.
“Palestine looks the more physical and formidable side. We can’t be too overaggressive,” said Borromeo. “I think we can play on the ground and combine well to beat them.”
Borromeo said getting their rhythm early will be key, unlike what happened against Myanmar where they struggled to settle in the first half.
“We want to make sure we continue where we left off in the second half of the Myanmar game,” said Palami. “We have developed a very good passing game as shown against Myanmar. It’s just really about putting ourselves on that mode early in the game.”
Palami added: We should get over the draw. I think it's important we get the three points against Palestine so we could be more relaxed against Bangladesh on Friday.”