KUWAIT—For a team that thrives on adversity, this one will prove to the ultimate test.
Already a heavy underdog in the biggest match of their history, the Philippine Azkals will have to make do without skipper Aly Borromeo when they battle Middle East powerhouse Kuwait in the first leg of their second round World Cup Qualifying duel Saturday night at the Mohammad Al-Hammad Stadium in Hawalli.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. (12:30 a.m. Sunday in Manila) with the Azkals needing nothing less than a flawless effort against a team considered as the best in the Gulf region and ranked 56 rungs higher than them in the international football rankings.
“We must show that we deserve to be on this level,” said Azkals coach Michael Weiss, who took the reigns of the fast-rising team six months ago. “For 90 minutes, we’ll give [Kuwait] a hard time.”
Chieffy Caligdong, a linchpin on the attack who has scored in the last three matches including in the two exhibition matches against Bahrain Under-23 Olympic team last week, is expected to lead the Azkals in Borromeo’s absence.
The fleet-footed winger from Barotac Nuevo will be part of the attack line composed of Phil and James Younghusband and Angel Guirado that will have more defensive responsibilities against what appears to be a more organized and menacing attacking side in the Kuwaitis.
Fortune hasn’t been favoring the Azkals in the buildup to the match with experienced players like midfielders Jerry Lucena and Paul Mulders all ruling themselves out of the Kuwait clash. The young duo of Manuel Ott and Jason de Jong are expected to start at central midfielders.
The last-minute decision of the International Football Federation to reject the appeal by the Philippine Football Federation to cancel the suspension of Borromeo and Stephan Schrock was another massive blow for the side, whose stock rose when they made the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup last December.
Azkals manager Dan Palami hopes the decision will fire up the Azkals.
“Up until the last minute we had always hoped that this will not be the case,” said Palami of Fifa’s decision. “We just have to be better and be more ferocious and be more tenacious.”
Although they had already anticipated Borromeo’s suspension, the coaching staff is in a quandary as to how to assemble the back four. One probable scenario is moving rightback Anton del Rosario to the center together with Rob Gier, insert Jason Sabio as right back and Ray Jonsson, who arrived here yesterday, returning to leftback.
The Azkals can draw inspiration from the string of upsets they pulled off during the past months that boosted their reputation, but Weiss said tonight’s match is all that matters now.
“We reach a certain stage where we have to be men, get our caps off and do everything, not with words but facts on the pitch,” said Weiss.
The stadium, the home of the club team Al-Qadsia, can accommodate up to 25,000, but Filipino fans here were allotted only 4,000 tickets.