Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Azkals face tough teams in Nepal tilt

By Alfonso Ramirez, Dateline Philippines

Filipino fans should not expect too much from the Philippine Azkals when the AFC Challenge Cup kicks off next month in Nepal.

The Azkals, who were catapulted to “rock star” status after they beat sub-regional football powerhouse, Vietnam, and went on to reach the semi-finals in the Suzuki Cup in 2010, will be up against tough teams in the group stages in Kathmandu as the minnows will be facing India, Tajikistan and Asian powerhouse and World Cup qualifier, North Korea.

“We’re trying to educate people about the realities of our situation. Football isn’t as developed in the Philippines as it is elsewhere,” said national team striker Phil Younghusband.

The former Chelsea reserve who now plays for the Loyola Meralco Sparks in the UFL, readily admits that the Azkals are cramming as they only have about a month to whip themselves into fighting form.

“Since the Suzuki Cup, there has been a lot of buzz around Philippine football. There’s more pressure and we’re expected to win, but there’s still a long way to go,” Younghusband said in an interview published by Dubai-based newspaper, Gulf News.

The Azkals will be leaving for Dubai tonight (Feb7) for a 10-day training camp, in which they will play three friendly matches.

“We need more preparation, but a lot of our players fly in from Europe at the last minute and it’s difficult to gel,” Younghusband added.

Eightheen players, including Younghusband and skipper Chieffy Caligdong who was earlier ruled out due to injury, will be joining the camp that will be held in the cosmopolitan Middle East city where basketball plays second fiddle to football and cricket in terms of popularity.

Organizers of the tour said the Philippine Football Federation decided to take the national team away from the many distractions in Manila to enable coach Michael Weiss and the coaching staff to whip the stray dogs into fine thoroughbreds.

The Azkals will be playing three friendly matches – one in Doha against Qatar Star League first division club, Al Ahli and two matches in Dubai against the under-23 team of Uzbekistan on Feb. 11 and the Qantas Australia under-23 team on Feb. 16.

The Dubai matches will be played at the Al Maktoum Stadium which is located in the Oud Metha area where Filipino expatriates usually congregate.

“The biggest test the Filipino players will face will be against the side from Down Under,” said Chris Bayliss of MediaPro Middle East, which handles the marketing and promotion of the Azkals tour.

“[The Australians] are preparing for the upcoming AFC Asian Qualifiers for London 2012 and will be tough opposition,” he added.

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