Pride or perdition: the Azkalsí road to Russia 2018

Christian Soler on Apr 14, 2015 10:35 PM
Pride or perdition: the Azkalsí road to Russia 2018

With all due respect to the Challenge Cup and ASEAN Football Federation Championship, this is Philippine football’s first foray into the big-time since, well, ever. Alongside Uzbekistan, Bahrain, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Yemen, the Azkals will take a stab at qualifying for the world’s biggest sporting spectacle. The Asian Football Confederation Road to Russia could be lined with pride or perdition.

How this all works

Forty AFC national teams have been bracketed into eight groups of five teams. The eight group winners and four best runners-up advance to the third round of AFC World Cup qualifying and are guaranteed spots in the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates. The four remaining runners-up are eliminated from World Cup qualifying but slotted into Asian Cup third round qualifiers.

All eight third-placed teams likewise enter the third round of Asian Cup qualifying, while the fourth- and fifth-ranked squads are put into either third round qualifying or the playoff round of the quadrennial continental tournament, depending on tie-breaking scenarios. 

The how, when, and where?

Each team plays its four other group opponents twice in a double round-robin fashion and on a home-and-home basis. Thus, the Philippines will host four matches and play four away games. Changes to the international calendar and/or venue availability, this is the Azkals’ schedule:

June 11, 2015 vs. Bahrain

June 16, 2015 @ Yemen (to be played in neutral ground as Yemen has been deemed unfit by the AFC to host sanctioned matches)

September 8, 2015 vs. Uzbekistan

October 8, 2015 @ DPR Korea

October 13, 2015 @ Bahrain

November 12, 2015 vs. Yemen

March 24, 2016 @ Uzbekistan

March 29, 2016 vs. DPR Korea

 

The Azkals

Unlike a short tournament like the AFF Suzuki Cup or the now-defunct Challenge Cup, the Philippines can call up any eligible player in the course of qualification. In other words, there is no set 23-man lineup from start to finish. The advantage is that in-form players, ‘newly-discovered’ foreign-based nationals, and up-and-coming youngsters from age-group squads, can be called up and fielded as qualifying progresses.

Philippines coach Thomas Dooley has experimented quite a bit with the squad since the 2014 Challenge Cup side that lost to Palestine in the final. The notable absentee is versatile Greuther Fürth midfielder Stephan Schröck, whose well-publicized, showbiz-like fallout with Dooley needs mending if the Azkals wish to fortify the final two-thirds of the pitch. As unpopular as this may sound, Schröck is the country’s best player – by a mile. His absence is punctuated by the Philippines’ general lack of continental-level depth. In ultra-competitive protracted campaigns like World Cup qualifying, the best players must be available for selection.

For now, the Philippines’ greatest strength lies in defense. Álvaro Silva is turning heads in the center of defense. There is some depth here as Juani Guirado and Rob Gier are seasoned campaigners who rarely panic and display confidence with the ball. Simone Rota and Daisuke Sato are exciting players on the wings. Both were at their peak in the two major competitions of 2014: the AFC Challenge and AFF Suzuki Cups. The midfield has understandably undergone some tinkering, both in form and composition. Jerry Lucena sat deep in a holding role while ex-Sporting Kansas City player Martin Steuble pushed up closer to lone striker Phil Younghusband. Expect Lucena and Patrick Reichelt to be fixtures in the center of the park. Options abound as OJ Porteria and James Younghusband are effective in wide positions, while Manuel Ott and Simon Greatwich are serviceable central midfielders.

Phil Younghusband is a proven scorer in international play. The wildcard, however, is ex-Córdoba and Thai Premier League hitman Javier Patiño. The Spanish-Filipino striker scored 21 times in 34 matches to lead powerhouse Buriram United to its fourth league title in seven seasons. Can Younghusband and Patiño co-exist in the same starting XI? Can one play behind the other as a second striker? Outside of the Schröck story, this is arguably the most intriguing question heading into qualifying.

The rest

While reigning Asian Cup champions Australia and traditional powerhouses Korea Republic and Japan ended up in other groups, Group H is undoubtedly one of the deepest and most competitive in the qualifiers. The Azkals clearly have their hands full as a 2010 World Cup finalist, two-time World Cup final qualification stage victim, and the continent’s biggest underachiever await. 

Uzbekistan

The top-seeded team in the group is also Asia’s sleeping giant. Uzbekistan has qualified for every Asian Cup since gaining independence and advanced beyond the group stage of each of that tournament’s last four iterations. The White Wolves have also been Asia’s heartbreak kids, missing out on a chance at a 2014 World Cup Intercontinental playoff date with Uruguay after bowing 9-8 on penalties to Jordan. In this year’s Asian Cup, coach Mirajol Qosimov’s men lost in extra time to Korea Republic in the quarterfinals, four years after being thrashed 6-0 by Australia in the same showpiece event.

Political correctness aside, Uzbekistan is Asia’s Russia. The similarities abound. Backstopped by a wealthy and competitive domestic league, Uzbekistan is both easy on the eye and hard on the heart. Two-time Asian Footballer of the Year Server Djeparov is a technically gifted and flashy trequartista who leads a very gifted midfield anchored by FC Krasnodar destroyer Odil Ahmedov. Up-and-coming strikers Sardor Rashidov and Igor Sergeev are above average covers for ageing legend Maksim Shatskikh. The core of the team comes from megabuck side Bunyodkor, which has become a mainstay in AFC Champions League play. Chemistry should not be an issue, especially in defense. But, like Russia, the Uzbeks flop when it matters most. Unfortunately for the Philippines, the second round of World Cup qualifying isn’t the big stage for the Central Asians. So, expect them to dominate the group and possibly drop a maximum of three points from 18.

 

 photo Djeparov.jpg

Server Djeparov: One of the most dynamic midfielders of his generation, Djeparov seeks to spark his underachieving nation.

Bahrain

Before Uzbekistan assumed the mantle of Asian underachievers, there was Bahrain. A so-called golden generation took the stage in the early 2000s, leading the small, one-million-plus kingdom to a shocking fourth place finish in the 2004 Asian Cup in China. In the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, The Red astonishingly marched all the way into the last stage, an intercontinental home-and-away playoff with Trinidad and Tobago, a two-legged series they eventually lost, 2-1. 2010 was a groundhog year for the emerging Asian power as it reached the same, exact phase only to stumble to New Zealand, 1-0 after two legs.

The international retirement of central defender Mohamed Husain leaves a huge void, particularly for a team that, like its Middle Eastern neighbors, has no qualms about parking the bus, wasting time and resorting to theatrics to nab a result. Known for producing prodigious strikers, this current crop has two goalmouth threats in Ismail Abdul-Latif and naturalized Nigerian Jaycee John Okwunwanne. Faouzi Aaish and Abdulwahab Al-Safi are foreign-based midfielders indispensable to the Bahraini cause, while Abdulwahab Al-Malood is a prototypical wide player who thrives when cutting into the middle. The Philippines have played Bahrain twice since 2012 drawing once and losing 2-1 last March 30, 2015.

Korea DPR

After shocking the world by qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the international men of mystery have had a mixed bag of results. Winning the 2010 and 2012 AFC Challenge Cups isn’t anything to shout about; the Chollima shouldn’t have been in those tournaments in the first place as they were simply a cut above the opposition, categorized by the AFC as ‘emerging countries.’ In tournaments that seriously tested the mettle of the North Koreans, namely the 2011 and 2015 Asian Cups, they wilted, losing five of their six group matches in the span of the two tournaments.

As of writing, the Chollima’s most recognizable figure, Jong Tae-se, a.k.a. The People’s Rooney, has yet to be reinstated into the national team. In his place, however, is an equally talented target man in FC Vaduz forward Pak Kwang-ryong. Key to Korea DPR’s success will be the supply to Pak, a task falling on the young shoulders of wonder kid Jong Il-gwan and Japan-based midfielders Ryang Yong-gi and Ri Yong-jik. Goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk has been the country’s first-choice keeper since the late 2000s. Tactically, there is little to say about the North Koreans as their domestic league, the DPRK League, is seldom aired on national television and even rarely attended by fans. If the past two Asian Cups are to go by, expect a young, technically sub-par yet hardworking side to pounce on the counter-attack and maintain tactical shape.

 

 photo Pak.jpg

Since everything in Korea DPR is cooler with the word 'people', is Pak (left) the next 'People's Zlatan'?

 

Yemen

As the lowest-rated side in Group H, Yemen enters the second round having beaten South Asian minnows Pakistan, 3-1 in the opening round of qualifying. Due to security concerns, the Yemenis, once an above-average outfit in the not-so-distant past of Asian football, have not hosted an AFC-sanctioned match since 2012. Their ‘home’ defeat of Pakistan was played out in Doha, Qatar thanks to goals from 20-year-old midfielder Abdulwasae Al-Matari, his creative counterpart, Ala Al-Sasi, and central defender Mohammed Ali Boqshan.

Seemingly easy pickings, the Yemenis are known for their 19th century, José Mourinho-like tactics. It would not be surprising to see Yemen deploy all 11 players behind the ball for 90 minutes, as it has done in sub-continental tournaments like the Gulf Cup of Nations and West Asian Football Federation Championship. In the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations, Yemen drew with much powerful opponents Bahrain and Qatar, both through 0-0 scorelines, while losing to Saudi Arabia, 1-0. If the phrase ‘tough nut to crack’ originated from football, whoever penned it must have been watching Yemen and its mastery of negative football.

 

Follow the writer on Twitter @christiansoler 

 

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