Azkals resume WCQ bid against China

SHARJAH, UAE – Notwithstanding the challenges in competing amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden change in venue and schedules, the Philippines looks to deliver a strong performance as the Azkals resume their campaign in the joint qualifying tournament for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup here.

The Azkals face China at 9 p.m. on Monday (Tuesday, 1 a.m. in Manila) in their first match since a 0-1 defeat to Syria in November 2019.

Sitting in third spot in the group with seven points, the Azkals have an outside chance to reach the third round of the WCQ and an outright Asian Cup spot, although a place in the next round of Asian Cup qualifying is a more realistic and doable task.

The team has added veterans Carlie De Murga and Manny Ott to the current lineup with the defender joining the squad in training last Saturday. Due to limited flights from Kuala Lumpur, Ott will be arriving Monday to link up with the team that has newcomers in Jeff Tabinas, Bernd Schipmann, Michael Kempter, Oliver Bias, Oliver Bias, Matthew Baldissimo and Mark Winhoffer.

Captain Stephan Schrock and Patrick Reichelt have taken on the leadership role with a relatively younger squad for the competiton.

“Right now the team is upbeat, we’re very motivated,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami. “We’re aiming for nine points here. Of course, there have been some major health concerns that we have raised to AFC and Fifa but we’re trying to cope with it and trying to focus on the game on Monday. We’re quite optimistic and the players are motivated to perform.”

The Azkals earlier noted the change in the sequence of matches as Guam was supposed to be their first opponents at the resumption of the centralized competition only for the AFC to switch it to China. Palami also raised concerns over the supposed bubble here in Sharjah, which was only put in place a day after the Azkals arrived.

The matches were supposed to be played in Suzhou, China, but due to challenges encountered by teams entering the country, the AFC moved the tournament to the UAE. The Philippine Football Federation had to cancel the chartered flight from Doha to Shangai at the last minute.

“Certainly in the past 10-11 years, this has been one of the most difficult (competition) that we had understandably because of the COVID protocols,” said Palami. “These are just challenges that we need to overcome so we can focus on the game.”

Despite the challenges faced by the Azkals, Palami sees no reason they can’t play their hearts out here.

“They’ll be fighting really hard and make sure the country is represented very well,” he said. “It is what it is and we have to push through no matter what.”