Philippines target historic victory in AFC Challenge Cup

Paul Freelend reports from the Maldives, where the Filipino squad will try to navigate the group stages of the AFC Challenge Cup and continue a run, they hope, to Asian Cup qualification.
Thomas Dooley, head coach of the Philippines national football team, shown during a friendly against Azerbaijan in Dubai on March 5, 2014. Satish Kumar / The National
Thomas Dooley, head coach of the Philippines national football team, shown during a friendly against Azerbaijan in Dubai on March 5, 2014. Satish Kumar / The National

Hithadhoo, Maldives // With one last golden ticket to the Asian Cup on offer, confidence is high in the Philippines camp that they can win the final AFC Challenge Cup and secure a trip to Australia in January.

The Azkals begin Group B play on Tuesday against Afghanistan in Hithadhoo, Maldives, and coach Thomas Dooley is well aware of what is at stake for his team.

“This is the biggest tournament for the Philippines in years, maybe in history. There’s a 50-50 chance to win the Challenge Cup and play with the big teams,” he said. “That’s a dream on our side, to play against big teams like Japan, Australia and Iran. But to go there and play at that level, we have to play tournaments like the Challenge Cup.”

The Philippines also face Laos in Hithadhoo, on Thursday, before traveling to the National Stadium in Male to close Group B play against two-time Challenge Cup runners-up Turkmenistan on Saturday. The Challenge Cup winners join Japan, Jordan and Iraq in Group D at next year’s Asian Cup.

Dooley, who took charge of the Azkals in February, faces some line-up juggling in his first competitive match as an international coach. Captain Rob Gier is suspended for the Afghanistan match after being booked twice during Challenge Cup qualification, as is striker Phil Younghusband, who scored the only goal in the decisive qualifier against Turkmenistan.

In keeping with his positive approach, though, Dooley preferred to look at their absence as an opportunity for other players.

“It is a great chance for the next in line to show he is ready to play big games,” he said. “We can’t always think about who we could have or should have. Players get injured before tournaments and they’re unavailable. Phil and Rob are unavailable, so I’m not thinking anything negative about that. I’m trying to find the right player to step in and do the same job, or maybe even better.”

The Philippines boast one of the most cosmopolitan squads in the tournament, with nine of their 23 players based in Europe. They include goalkeepers Neil Etheridge (Fulham, England) and Roland Muller (Servette, Switzerland), defenders Juan Luis Guirado (Burgos, Spain) and Dennis Cagara (Lyngby, Denmark), and midfielders Stephan Schrock (Eintracht Frankfurt, Germany) and Paul Mulders (Cambuur, Netherlands).

Afghanistan, the only side in the Challenge Cup with more players based abroad, have their own juggling to do – not with players, but rather who selects them. Coach Mohammad Kargar is suspended for three matches, with interim coach Erich Rutemoller filling in for him during the group stage as part of a cooperation between the Afghan and German football associations.

Rutemoller, who joined the team in early May, said he was encouraged by what he saw during his first match with the team in person, a friendly against Kuwait.

“In the last match against Kuwait, we were 3-0 behind and made it 3-2 at the end. That was fantastic to see,” he said. “That’s what it is all about. If you have the right attitude, you will improve yourself and reach your targets.”

Afghanistan’s Challenge Cup preparation included a scoreless draw against Kyrgyzstan at Al Shabab Stadium in Dubai on April 13, a match attended by thousands of Afghan supporters. The side also go into the tournament with the confidence boost of winning their first South Asian Football Federation championship, beating India in last September’s final in Kathmandu.

Just making it to the Maldives is an accomplishment for Laos. They finished second in their qualifying group, behind Afghanistan, and reached the Challenge Cup as the best second-placed side. Coach Norio Tsukitake, who took charge of Laos three months ago, appeared to have realistic expectations as his side open their first continental tournament against Turkmenistan.

“I picked very young players. They didn’t have much experience and maybe they didn’t understand the international game. Maybe now they know,” he said. “They’re not scared of anything and they only look toward the future. Maybe these young boys can do everything in this competition.”

Tsukitake, whose side lost their final warm-up 7-1 against the Maldives, also made a point of highlighting his players’ appreciation of their tropical surroundings, having come from a land-locked country.

“The players are very happy. Here, it is very beautiful with the sea and the beach. Laos doesn’t have a sea, only land,” he said.

“We want to go to the Asian Cup. I told the players, ‘If you win the championship, you can go to Australia.’ Australia is a good place. Australia has a sea, and we already talked about that.”

Group A opened on Monday with plenty of late drama. In the opening match, Abdelhamid Abuhabib secured all three points for Palestine against Kyrgyzstan with a half-volley finish from a corner kick in the 96th minute.

The late match saw Myanmar, led by former Singapore coach Raddy Avramovic, upset the hosts 3-2. Kyaw Ko Ko scored twice, including the winner five minutes into second-half stoppage time, with Ali Ashfaq’s 96th-minute reply ultimately proving just a consolation goal.

pfreelend@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM

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