TASHKENT—For a team that thrives on adversity, the Azkals could be facing their sternest test yet.
Banged-up and travel-weary, the Philippine Azkals aim to defy the odds when they square off with Asian powerhouse Uzbekistan Thursday night in their Asian Cup and World Cup Qualifying clash at Bunyodkor Stadium here.
The match kicking off at 9 p.m. in Manila marks the start of a challenging five-day stretch for the Azkals, who are looking to keep third spot in Group H to avoid a playoff for a berth in the third round of Asian Cup Qualifying. The Azkals also face North Korea at Rizal Memorial Stadium on Tuesday.
“These are the games that we live for,” said Azkals coach Thomas Dooley. “If you look at it, we don’t stand a chance, but anything can happen in football.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami believes the Azkals can rise to the challenge in this landlocked capital city that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
“We have a very resilient team,” said Palami. “We can always count on the players to play their best for the country.”
Picking up at least a point here could go a long way for the Azkals hopes of finishing in the Top Three in their group as Bahrain is just behind on goal difference and has a match it is expected to win against Yemen. Finishing fourth could mean the Azkals will drop to a playoff for a place in the third round of Asian Cup Qualifying—a disappointing scenario considering the team started the campaign with two impressive wins before losing three of the next four games.
The Azkals won’t have skipper Phil Younghusband, talisman Stephan Schrock and suspended players Manny Ott and Misagh Bahadoran as well as a slew of veterans who called time to their international careers just last week.
Dooley also noted the 24 hours the Azkals spent going here from Manila which could take a toll on the players during the game.
“Obviously we have some problems in the team, but we’re looking forward to the game tomorrow,” said Azkals coach Thomas Dooley. “The team that we have is the best that we have right now.”
Veteran defender Juani Guirado, who will skipper the side tomorrow, said there should be no recourse for the Azkals but to fight in every play for 90 minutes.
“The mentality of the team is strong even though some of our other teammates are not here,” said the 36-year-old Guirado. “Every player on this team is ready to fight.”
The Uzbeks hammered out a 5-1 victory over the Azkals in their previous meeting in Bulacan last September, but coach Uzbekistan coach Samvel Babayan said his side will be foolish to think that the result could easily be replicated here.
“It will be a difficult game and we re spect the Philippines,” said Babayan, whose team can all but seal its place in the next round of World Cup Qualifying with a victory. “Our target is to put in a performance, show our strengths and quality and probably the win will come.”
Dooley hinted at reverting to a more balanced 4-2-3-1 formation for the clash, with Javier Patino expected to lead the line and Martin Steuble teaming up with Luke Woodland at midfield. OJ Porteria could get his first start in the competition in the position where Younghusband and Schrock used to play—behind the main striker. Young defenders Amani Aguinaldo and Daisuke Sato are both nursing minor injuries, but Dooley said the duo will be fit to play.
The Azkals are also pinning their hopes on Neil Etheridge who hopes to carry his fine form at club level to international play.
“It’s one of those games where you need your defense and the goalkeeper to be at their ultimate best,” said Azkals’ Swiss goalkeeping coach Pascal Zuberbuhler.