The Philippine Azkals look to fulfill what was once a figment of the imagination as they battle Palestine for the AFC Challenge Cup crown tonight and for the right to play in the AFC Asian Cup in Australia next year.
The do-or-die game will be staged at the National Stadium in Male, Maldives, and the Azkals, fresh from a nerve-wracking 3-2 victory over the host in extra time, are bracing for a tight encounter against the gutsy Palestinian side.
Another win will complete Philippine football’s rise from obscurity that began four years ago with the Azkals’ gigantic upset of Vietnam in the AFF Suzuki Cup in Hanoi.
Tonight’s contest will also be the last final of the Challenge Cup as the Asian Football Confederation had earlier decided to eliminate the “tournament for emerging nations”, thus further fueling the Azkals’ desire to come out as winners.
But in order to bag their first major trophy, the national booters will have to show a much-better display against the Palestinians and not be content with their semis showing against Maldives.
In that match, the Azkals survived a pair of equalizers with veteran Chris Greatwich securing the tense win with a tap in the 104th minute.
“We were hungry for this victory,” Azkals coach Thomas Dooley said after the match. “In the end I am very pleased with how the team played against their great players who are always dangerous.”
Dooley, who took charge of the squad in February replacing German Hans Weiss, is hoping to see his main guns deliver in perhaps the most important match in the Azkals era.
Phil Younghusband will try to keep his scoring ways, having struck the opening goals against Turkmenistan in the group stage and Maldives in the semis.
Stephan Schrock, lauded for his quick abilities in setting up scoring chances, has been dealing with a hamstring injury. It’s not sure if he will start but the Fil-German midfielder is nonetheless expected to see action.
The team’s backline is looking to give plenty of problems for the Palestine attackers with team captain Rob Gier, Daisuke Sato, Amani Aguinaldo and Jason de Jong likely to compose the “back four” and aid goalkeeper Roland Muller.
Muller has stepped up in the absence of first-choice keeper Neil Etheridge, making sensational saves including a pair of penalty kicks. Arguably the best Azkal of the tourney, he is out to keep his splendid form in the final.
“As the tournament goes on you are getting more tired and making more mistakes, but in terms of unity, the team has grown in the 10 days here,” said Dooley. “It is something we work on every day and the team is ready to fight against anything and to make the people proud.”
While they have beaten Palestine, 4-3, in the third place game of the 2012 Challenge Cup in Nepal, the Azkals expect a much-different battle since a lot of things have changed since then.
Like the Azkals, Palestine has yet to lose a match in this competition, topping Group A before defeating Afghanistan, 2-0, in the semis.
by Jonas Terrado, mb.com.ph