Group C action in the 2019 Asian Cup kicks off and the Philippines has drawn one of the toughest assignments in its footballing history.
Will Korea live up to its billing as a tournament favorite? Can the Azkals rise above the moment and show they are here as a competitor and not as a foil?
Let’s break it down.
When the current Philippine men's national football team program was put in place in 2008, the goals were ambitious but practical. It was to fight for respectability in Southeast Asia (and maybe bagging a championship or two) and breaking through in Asia and hopefully, the FIFA World Cup.
It might have been like a slow burn and the big titles the Filipinos have aspired for have eluded them, but you have to say that great strides have been made by the Azkals in that time.
Now they are making their debut in the Asian Cup. And if this is the swan song for Phil Younghusband and a few others who have been instrumental in this renaissance, then this is their time to shine.
Of course, that is easier said than done since the Philippines is in a tough group. And the team just happens to go up against one of the tournament favorites in South Korea.
Sven-Goran Eriksson promised surprises against Korea; what it is we will find out come kickoff. Analysts can point out to Korea having experienced players in the top leagues in the world and, sure, we aren’t discounting that at all.
Both teams don’t really know each other as they have not played each other before.
I believe that the key to the game will be the Philippines’ aggressiveness. All the Korean players are in the midst of all their professional legs -- the middle of their seasons, if you will -- so there will be a bit of weariness in their legs. The Philippines is fresh, but that can also work against the team. I know that the Koreans have yet to concede a goal in the qualifiers but this is where every team is good at the moment. The fat has been trimmed.
The Filipinos should be aggressive and test South Korea’s defense, make them commit their defenders in the back rather than move up in support.
If Stephan Schrock and Ott brothers Manny and Mike can stand strong in that midfield and create chances, it will really help the cause.
I am not sure if the style the Philippines displayed early in the 2018 Suzuki Cup, where they’d play defensively then go on the attack with a build up from the back, would work. I do not think the Philippines should allow Paulo Bento’s team to dictate the pace.
They should attack and test Korea’s discipline in the back, but to also quickly backtrack because South Korea plays at a fast pace.
Strengths: This is arguably the best lineup that the Philippines has ever fielded. Eriksson and co. have experience and, as this team has been together for a bit now, familiarity and confidence. But that confidence will be tested in these uncharted waters. Javi Patiño is in the lineup. If he can help out and be tough up front, that will augur well for Eriksson’s team.
The team has speed and even toughness.
Weaknesses: When the ground game isn’t there, they resort to the long ball. They can also be leaky on defense. And the decision-making sometimes in the final third is questionable.
En route to the 2019 Asian Cup, manager Paulo Bento played his European veterans at one point, then gave exposure to others. As a result, he has a squad that is flush with confidence and is looking forward to gain revenge (on China for their loss in the previous World Cup qualifiers). They cannot look far ahead to China but concentrate on the Philippines.
As that loss to China shows, anything can happen in sports. It sure is a nice advantage to have quality players and a very good coach.
Strengths: The experience gained by their players who ply their trade in Europe or Asia. With that comes confidence and better skills. You have to like the quality they bring to bear. And they aren’t scrubs.
People will always look to Son Heung-Min or even Ki Sung-Yueng who play in England, but in my opinion, Hwang Ui-Jo, who has been outstanding with Gamba Osaka in the J1 league, could have a strong tournament.
I expect him to play off of Son. If this tandem can get going, Korea will be a handful.
Weaknesses: We previously pointed out that their European players are in the middle of their respective seasons. Could fatigue be a factor? Possibly. Overconfidence? Possibly too. This is now incumbent on Bento to manage his squad.
For all their European experience, the fact that this team hasn’t had much meaningful practice in recent weeks means the timing between teammates could be a bit off.
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