MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Azkals made a strong statement when they stunned Turkmenistan to win Group E of their AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers and advance to the main draw in Maldives next year.
Coming into Tuesday's match at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, both teams were virtually assured of slots in Maldives, but Azkals coach Michael Weiss stressed the importance of beating Turkmenistan.
"I said, forget that we already qualified. We want to win this match," he said. "We want to send a sign, as a team, to the outside world that we are the ones to (be) reckoned with, we are the ones to be beaten in Maldives, and they made it."
"It's good for our confidence. It gives us a big boost for the upcoming year in order to prepare for the final tournament in Maldives," Weiss added.
Phil Younghusband struck in the 66th minute to score the lone goal of the match, while the Philippines’ defense held the fort in the final minutes to preserve the 1-nil victory.
The Azkals wound up topping their group with nine points, and scored a total of nine goals in the tournament. Turkmenistan finished second. Both teams will advance to next year's main draw.
The victory allowed the Azkals to gain a measure of revenge against Turkmenistan, who broke their hearts in the semi-finals of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup with two late goals, denying them a chance to make the finals for the first time ever.
The Philippines still had their best ever finish in the tournament, beating Palestine, 4-3, in the third-place game.
But after two impressive performances in the qualifiers, the Azkals are hoping to break new ground in next year’s tournament.
Weiss believes the Azkals are now among the favorites, but stressed that they have a lot of work to do. "We had a couple of lapses in the backline, and we didn't play as fast as I hoped we could," he said.
Azkals team manager Dan Palami, for his part, said the Azkals will prepare as though they are still underdogs, even after making remarkable progress in a short amount of time.
"We always try to keep our expectations low, but certainly we will prepare as if we are still the underdogs," Palami said. "But with the line-up that we have, I’m sure that we stand a good chance of finally taking that giant leap into Sydney 2015 for the Asian Cup."