Azkal, Maldives fight for finals berth

By Olmin Leyba, The Philippine Star

Posted at May 27 2014 08:44 AM | Updated as of May 28 2014 01:37 AM

MALE – Holding the trophy in a photo op with the coach of the opposing team after the presscon for the semifinal matches of the AFC Challenge Cup, a smiling Azkals mentor Thomas Dooley blurted: "Can I take this home?"

It was said in jest but it pretty much expressed how much the former US skipper wanted the hardware for his Pinoy wards, who stand within striking distance of the title and a historic stint in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.

The top semifinalist from Group B, the Azkals gun for a finals berth tonight (midnight of Tuesday in Manila) against Group A second-placer Maldives before an unfriendly crowd at National Stadium.

“It will definitely be very, very interesting game and a very difficult game for us because we’re not just playing (the) Maldives (team), we’re playing against the country (with) maybe 12,000 or 13,000 people in the stadium and their presence gives their team more energy, more power, and that’s always difficult to play in,” said Dooley.

But the Azkals believe they can take on the “super tough” challenge the home side is expected to give them.

“It’s going to be a super tough game; they’re going to have a lot of fans screaming for them but I’m confident this team has enough ability and mental strength to deal with it and hopefully, God-willing, we’ll come out with positive result at the end of it,” said captain Rob Gier.

Maldives coach Drago Mamic said they wouldn’t depend much on the so-called “12th man” to hurdle the visitors.

“In football and in other sports, sometimes when fans cheer for you but you make mistakes and it’s neutralized. So you must play disciplined; you must know how to take advantage of this and to be careful because the opposing side is very strong and details can decide the game,” he said.

The Azkals expect to have their hands full against a quick and hardworking Maldivians led by their star striker Ali Ashfaq, who scored three goals in the group stages.

“Maldives is a good team. We watched their games during the group stages and they’re a quick team, they don’t give up, they keep on hustling. So it’s going be difficult and if we want to win, we have to play very well,” said Phil Younghusband.

Gier, one of the Azkals’ defensive pillars, said they will try to neutralize the threat from the charismatic Ashfaq.

“We’ve played against lots of good strikers throughout Asia. Obviously, he’s their star, their captain, their talisman. But we won’t be treating him any differently from how we treat everyone else. It’s kinda imperative we nullify his game. If we could do that, then we’ll have a successful game,” said the veteran.

Mamic said they have the luxury of having everyone in the team available for the game.