Football: Azkals will be well-prepared for qualifiers, assures coach Cooper

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 17 2021 02:58 PM

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MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippine Azkals will be ready for crucial matches in the FIFA World Cup/AFC Asian Cup qualifiers that will take place in Suzhou, China next month.

This was the assurance made by head coach Scott Cooper as the team gears up for a training camp in Qatar starting Tuesday.

"We will be prepared," Cooper guaranteed in a recent media briefing. "We'll have plans A, B, and C."

"We'll have potential in the squad that we can call on, and it's a matter of how quickly, like any national team coach, can jell his team together," he added.

The Azkals are currently third in Group A of the qualifiers, with seven points from five matches played. They have two wins (against Maldives and Guam), two losses (both to Syria), and a draw with China.

As it stands, the Azkals will advance to the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers, but Cooper is hopeful that they can get an even better result. Syria (5-0-0, 15 points) and China (2-1-1, seven points) are currently above the Philippines in their group.

The team that tops the group qualifies to the Asian Cup as well as the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. 

The second-placed team will also advance to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, and may secure an Asian Cup spot as well depending on how their record compares with other second-placed teams.

The Philippines lineup for the Korea match at al-Maktoum stadium in Dubai on Monday: (Back row from left) defender Luke Woodland, defender Alvaro Silva, forward Patrick Reichelt, midfielder Kevin Ingreso, and goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard;(front row from left) Defender Daisuke Sato, midfielder Stephan Schrock, forward Javier Patino, midfielder Manuel Ott, and defender Stefan Palla. File photo. Giuseppe Cacace, AFP

"(We want to go to) the highest level possible we can get to," Cooper said. "We have to look at the balance of the team, pace, height, experience, endeavor, set piece formations, counter attack, high pressing."

"We'll look to do the country proud… Obviously we're looking for two wins," he added.

The Azkals play Guam on June 3 and China on June 9, before wrapping up their group stage schedule against Maldives on June 15. While they should be favored against Guam and Maldives, Cooper is not counting out an upset against China.

He pointed out that they have steadily made progress against the Asian powerhouse, even holding them to a goalless draw when they played in Bacolod in October 2019.

"We're progressively showing against them that we're doing okay," said Cooper. "But at the same time, they're preparing now a few months early, and I'm hearing stories about them naturalizing Brazilian players so we'll wait and see on that." 

The Azkals expect to be joined by veterans Neil Etheridge and Stephan Schrock in their camp in Qatar, while the federation remains hopeful that the naturalization of Bienvenido Maranon will be finalized in time for the qualifiers.

Twenty-six players are set to be called up to the training camp, with some of them flying in from their own leagues all over the world.

According to Cooper, none of the Azkals players have expressed apprehension about training and competing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"So, we don't have excuses," he said. "No players are saying no, we've got the time in Doha. We've beaten Maldives and Guam already, away from home, we've tied with China here."

"So it's up to us and the staff now to raise the bar, and that's what we're hoping to do with the national team -- push on," he added.