Etheridge available for Azkal friendlies

By Edward Lao, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Sep 04 2012 10:12 AM | Updated as of Sep 05 2012 12:58 AM

LONDON -- The Philippines' first choice goalkeeper, Neil Etheridge, will line up for the Azkals when they face Cambodia on September 5, Singapore on the 7th, and Laos on the 10th.

The friendlies, which will affect FIFA rankings, are in preparation for the 2012 Suzuki Cup this November.

Though all three teams are below the Philippines (150th) in current rankings, the Fulham FC stopper still expects them to give the Azkals a tough test.

The British Pinoy highlighted Cambodia's (191st) improvement.

"They were a lower ranked team and now they've taken a step up from that grouping of south-east Asia. They've gone into a higher grouping now," he said.

"It will be a good test for us. Just because they are a lower ranked team it doesn't mean they are going to bow down to us. They are going to go out and try to prove a point, especially with the Suzuki Cup coming up. We're bringing a strengthened squad and I'm sure they will as well."

Singapore (162nd) is expected to present the Azkals their stiffest challenge.

The last time the two nations met was in a friendly in Singapore last October. The Lions won that encounter 2-0.

Etheridge explains they played on an astro-turf (artificial) pitch, which he feels was not ideal, but he still gave the Singaporeans credit.

"They always put a good team out. They put very experienced players along with some players that are young and upcoming.

"Singapore is always a tough opponent and they're definitely a team that we'll need to be on our A-game to compete with."

Laos (194th) may be the weakest side, but Etheridge says the Azkals won't be taking any chances.

"On paper they are the lowest ranked team, but at the same time I always say over 90 minutes of football anything can happen."

The 22-year old is confident the Azkals will emerge victorious in all three games, but knows it won't be a stroll.

"I'm quite confident that we'll win, but at the same time we'll only win if we keep our minds focused and do what we know we can do."

Other than good practice for the Suzuki Cup, he sees joining up with the Philippine national team as a good opportunity to get games under his belt and for the players to bond.

Azkals Head Coach Michael Weiss recently announced the recruitment of two new Filipino-Americans - Matthew Uy and Demetrius Omphroy. They have been selected for the upcoming friendlies and are expected to feature against Cambodia.

Etheridge concedes he knows little about his new teammates, but welcomes their inclusion and is eager to meet them.

"The squad is growing in size and strength as well. It's always good to have a pool of players that coach can select from. Hopefully they can fit into the style of play that coach wants us to play."

The Azkals burst onto the scene at the 2010 Suzuki Cup after reaching the semi-finals of the biennial competition.

Two years on, the Filipinos have grown in strength and depth.

Going into this year's installment, Etheridge knows the Azkals are no longer seen as underdogs in the region.

He is proud of their progression, but knows there is a long way to go yet.

"2010 seems quite a while back now. We arrived on the scene quite strongly and some would argue that we've fallen off a little bit, but in our argument we've moved on from the Cambodia's, the Laos' and the Timor Leste's.

"We are starting to play the stronger teams from south east Asia as well as Middle Eastern teams. These countries have been developing football for far longer than we have. To improve we need to play teams that are on the same level if not better than us."

He issued a reminder for supporters not to expect too much too soon.

"Of course we want to go out and win every game, we've got a very confident bunch of guys. We do try our best every single time, but sometimes we don't get the result we want, or maybe don't get the result we deserve.

"We are evolving as a team and it's not going to be easy. It's going to take time, funds, experience. We've had a few bumps in the road, but we want to move forward and play our football."

The Azkals will travel to the Middle East in October as they step up preparations for the Suzuki Cup.

The Philippines is pooled with Thailand (133rd), Vietnam (146th) and the top team from the qualifying tournament.