MANILA, Philippines - Given the improved play of the Philippine Azkals under American coach Thomas Dooley, national team manager Dan Palami likes their chances when they see action in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup in the Maldives next month.
"The Azkals have improved a lot under coach Thomas and we hope to see this improvement bear fruit in the Challenge Cup," said Palami on Tuesday, April 22, at the PSA forum at the Shakey's Malate branch in Manila.
Credited for local soccer's meteoric rise since managing the Filipino booters that wound up surprise semifinalists in the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2014, Palami pointed to the results of their tuneup matches during their recent training camp in Qatar as the basis for his optimism.
The Azkals thrashed Nepal 3-0 then managed to emerge with a 1-1 draw over fancied commercial club Al-Ahli that had players from Uruguay, Brazil and Africa reinforcing its lineup.
"Not too many people realize that Al-Ahli was a tough team since it had good players from Uruguay, Brazil and Africa," he noted. "If they do well in Qatar, these players are usually naturalized and become members of its national team."
Palami said that the national team hopefuls have responded well to the system instituted by Dooley, a former US national squad skipper and World Cup veteran.
"Our players have a better understanding of the role they have to play in their respective positions under Dooley's system that anyone can step up even if we don't have our stars playing," Palami said.
He referred again to the friendly match against Al-Ahli where Dooley rested ailing top striker Phil Younghusband but the Filipinos still managed to keep it close and gain the stalemate.
Palami said winning the Challenge Cup scheduled May 19 to 30 in the Maldives was significant for the sustained development of local football.
"This is our biggest tournament yet because the Challenge Cup champion will play in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia where the big boys of Asia will be competing," he pointed out. "Winning the Challenge Cup will take the Philippine football to the next level."
He added that participating in the eight-nation tournament was part of his personal five-year blueprint in bringing the country "to become among the top 10 in Asia. Our performance in the Challenge Cup will show us where we are right now."
The Filipinos are bracketed in Group B in the eliminations together with Turkmenistan, Laos and Afghanistan, while Group A is composed of the host Maldives, Kyrgystan, Myanmar and Palestine.
The Nationals open their stint against the Afghans on May 20, face the Laotians two days later before closing the eliminations versus the Turkmen on May 24.
Despite what many football observers see as the lighter group, the national team chief said the Azkals would definitely not take their rivals lightly.
"Turkmenistan was the Challenge Cup runner-up two years ago, Afghanistan is the South Asia champion while we have never beaten Laos before. So the group isn't as easy as it looks," he said.
The Pinoy footballers continue their preparations in tackling Malaysia on Sunday at the Cebu City Sports Complex pitch. Both squads battled to a scoreless deadlock the last time they met in Selayang, Malaysia on March 1.
Palami said he and the rest of the coaching staff expect to decide on the final 18-man Azkals' roster during the team's last training camp in Bahrain from May 6 to 16.
"We should know the complete roster during the middle of the training camp," said Palami, who will head the PH contingent leaving directly from Bahrain to the Maldives. - Rappler.com