MALE, Maldives—Their confidence boosted by their stellar performance the last time out, the Philippine Azkals seek to move one step closer to their cherished dream of reaching the AFC Asian Cup here.
With morale high and still armed with depth and firepower, the Azkals take on host Maldives Tuesday in the AFC Challenge Cup semifinals at National Stadium here.
The Azkals qualified as the top team in Group B with two wins and a draw, but the record counts for nothing in the knockout match expected to be played before 13,000 mostly hostile fans.
“It will be a very difficult game for us,” said Azkals coach Thomas Dooley. “We’re not only up against the Maldives team but the country. The crowd will give them energy and power to negate whatever advantage we have.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami remains confident that the side will reach the finals.
“Maldives has been beaten before (by Burma (Myanmar), 3-2, in the group stage), its not impossible to beat them,” he said.
The Azkals’ depth is being tested with injuries to a few players and the departure of Dennis Cagara, who returned to his second-division side in Denmark, while Stephan Schrock is feeling pain in his hamstring.
With Daisuke Sato proving to be a revelation in the tournament at leftback, Cagara has been given only one start in three matches.
Get past the semifinals The Azkals, who enjoyed a two-day break, feel they are ready to finally get past the semifinals of a major tournament—a stage where they have already stumbled three times.
“Something in the camp feels a bit different this time,” said skipper Rob Gier. “I’m confident this team has enough ability and mental strength to deal with the pressure. We’re not happy with just a semifinal place.”
The Azkals stunned long-time nemesis Turkmenistan, 2-0, to book their place in the semifinals with goals from Phil Younghusband and Phil Reichelt and Roland Muller helping keep a third straight clean sheet with a penalty save.
The Azkals are one of only two teams in the tournament that have yet to concede a goal, the other being Palestine, which faces Afghanistan Tuesday.
No stranger to big matches, Younghusband is relishing a duel with a Maldivian side, which beat the Philippines, 2-1, in the same tournament in 2009 here.
“I wanted to play the Maldives and it would be good to play before a huge crowd,” said Younghusband.
One player who’s going to get extra attention from the Azkals is Maldives skipper Ali Ashfaq, the tournament’s leading scorer with three goals.