ADDU CITY, Maldives—For the Philippine Azkals, it doesn’t get more important than this tournament.
With another shot at making history, the Azkals start their climb out of a tough Group B in the AFC Challenge Cup with a duel against South Asian champion Afghanistan Tuesday night at the newly built Addu Football Stadium.
All the buildup over the past 14 months since their qualification in Manila has been geared toward this tournament and although the Azkals have achieved significant progress under coach Thomas Dooley, the eight-team Challenge Cup is their ultimate test. Kickoff is at 9 p.m. (12 midnight in Manila) between the two teams that drew 1-1 in their only meeting in the Challenge Cup in Bangladesh in 2006. Turkmenistan and Laos clash at 4 p.m. in the first match of the group.
The Azkals will be looking to surpass their third place finish in 2012 as they seek a first major title in the tournament’s final edition. Also at stake is a spot in the AFC Asian Cup in Australia next year.
“It’s the biggest tournament for us,” Dooley told the Inquirer at the posh Herathera Beach Resort, where all four Group B teams are staying.
“It may feel like a vacation here, but in the end we want to write history and make it an experience of a lifetime.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami said the team is ready for the challenge ahead. “We’ve been looking forward to this tournament the past two years and we have assembled a team that will make the Philippines proud,” said Palami.
The Azkals are coming in close to full-strength with Dooley recalling all the big guns from Europe, including Stephan Schrock, Neil Etheridge, Roland Muller, Jerry Lucena and Dennis Cagara. The only significant absentee is Javier Patino, the in-form striker, who was not released by Thai club Buriram.
Dooley has some tough selection choices to make with Rob Gier and Phil Younghusband suspended for the match due to accumulation of yellow cards and a red card respectively from the qualifying campaign in Manila last year.
In Gier’s absence, Juani Guirado has been picked to skipper the side, while Lucena is expected to fill the centerback position.