Azkals go up vs tough Azerbaijan

By Olmin Leyba, The Philippine Star

Posted at Mar 05 2014 01:04 PM | Updated as of Mar 05 2014 09:04 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Can the Philippine Azkals hold their own against a Top 100 side from Europe?

The Pinoy booters certainly hope to do so in Dubai tonight when they face their toughest test yet against Azerbaijan, a European side that stands at 93rd in the Fifa world rankings and obviously enjoys the edge in this matchup.

“It’s a benchmark to kind of see where we are,” said Azkals captain Rob Gier. “It’s going to be a tough game. If we can do good things against this team, then I think we can do good things against the rest of Asia.”

Phl hopes to build from its encouraging performance in Saturday’s road friendly in Malaysia, where new coach Thomas Dooley and a newbie-laden crew acquitted themselves well and held the Tigers to a scoreless draw.

“It’s still a great chance for us to do things better especially after the performance against Malaysia,” said Dooley. “I thought we did well (against Malaysia) than I initially thought, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.”

The level of the opposition rises exponentially tonight so the Azkals have muscled up a bit and called in Bundesliga campaigner Stephan Schrock, Danish League standout Jerry Lucena and Thai Premier League star Javier Patiño for the 7 p.m. (11 p.m. in Manila) match

Goalie Roland Muller was supposed to man the post but couldn’t make it to the match due to illness, leaving 24-year-old Patrick Deyto with the task of tending the goal against Azerbaijan. Deyto had his baptism of fire against Malaysia and managed to keep a clean slate.

A former Soviet Republic, Azerbaijan has played decent matches against Europe’s best teams in Fifa World Cup Qualifying play and will come in favored against the fledgling Southeast Asian side.

“They’re powerful and they play the ball quickly. They pass the ball well and everyone is comfortable in possession,” Gier, who also produces scouting reports on Azkals’ opponents, said.

Lucena and Patiño enter the friendly battle weary, having come from busy slates with their respective clubs. Lucena suited up for three games in six days for Danish club Esjberg, including a Europa League gig against Italian team Fiorentina last Thursday, while Patiño played for Buriram United last Sunday in a Thai Cup match.

Meanwhile, Schrock, the 2013 Mr. Football awardee of the Philippine Sportswriters Association, may have to play a different role for the Azkals this time as it will be Phil Younghusband who will assume support striker’s role to Patiño. Team insiders said Dooley may assign the prolific Fil-German to the flanks.