MANILA, Philippines — It was going to be a tough group either way for the Philippines in the AFC Challenge Cup.
But optimism is high following the draw Wednesday night as the Philippines landed in a group with familiar foes in Turkmenistan and Laos in the May 19 to 30 event in the Maldives.
The Azkals, who hired US 1998 World Cup captain Thomas Dooley last week as their new coach, will also face South Asian champion Afghanistan at the start of hostilities in Group B on May 20 in Addu City.
A showdown with Laos—a team that the Azkals have never beaten before—is scheduled on May 22, before Turkmenistan tests the Philippines in a critical duel two days later.
The Azkals, who posted a historic third-place finish in the 2012 tournament in Nepal, are hoping to land the AFC Cup berth that comes with being a champion of the tournament for emerging footballing nations in the continent.
“Every group is tough because these are all evenly matched teams,” said Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Mariano Araneta. “There are no pushovers. We just have to prepare for all the teams.”
Group A also looks formidable with host Maldives joining powerhouse Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and 2012 semifinalist Palestine.
The Philippines and Turkmenistan have split their last two matches with the Azkals avenging their 2012 semifinal loss to the Turks with a 1-0 triumph in qualifying last March.
The Afghans also pose a threat with a team whose stock rose tremendously after their South Asian Football Championship victory late last year.
Dooley, who replaced German coach Michael Weiss, will have three months to prepare the Azkals, who are facing Malaysia in a friendly on March 1, before playing European side Azerbaijan on March 5 in Dubai.
Araneta said the PFF is also eyeing a camp in Dubai in April that will include a couple of friendly matches against top clubs in the Emirate.