With players returning from injuries and foreign-based recruits all making themselves available, the Philippine Azkals buckled down to work on Saturday in preparation for their most important match yet.
The Azkals face Tajikistan on March 27 in their final game of AFC Asian Cup Qualifying at Rizal Memorial Stadium with the Filipinos needing a draw to punch their ticket to the continental showpiece event next year in the United Arab Emirates.
Azkals captain Phil Younghusband said the return of the likes of Manny Ott and Javier Patino from injury should come as a huge boost for the side that drew its last three matches.
“It gives us confidence knowing we have players who could have made a difference in the past three games back for this game,” said Younghusband. “We all missed Patino and Manny in the previous games. Patrick (Reichelt) is also back.”
Only the local-based Azkals joined training at McKinley Hill Stadium last Saturday with the rest of the foreign-based players like Neil Etheridge, Daisuke Sato, Iain Ramsay, Pika Minegishi, Misagh Bahadoran and new recruit Michael Falkesgaard linking up with the team next week.
Etheridge will still play for Cardiff City in the English Championship this weekend. Cardiff is currently in a strong position to gain promotion to the English Premier League with Etheridge among its key players.
The Azkals clash with Fiji in a friendly on Thursday also at Rizal Memorial Stadium as Dooley tries to whip his squad into shape for the crucial duel with the Tajiks five days later. Tajikistan will qualify with a victory over the Azkals, whose fate will now depend on the result of the Yemen-Nepal match. A win by both Tajikistan and Yemen will eliminate the Azkals.
Younghusband acknowledged the importance of the match for the sport in the country.
“As it (match) gets closer, I can feel the pressure a bit more with the situation of Philippine football right now,” said Younghusband. “I think we need another milestone, another achievement, another success for football to grow again and this match (against) Tajikistan gives us that chance.”