Philippine Football Federation president Mariano Araneta Jr. has confirmed that skipper Stephan Schröck and first-choice goalkeeper Neil Etheridge will be with the Philippine Azkals at their training camp in Doha, Qatar, which kicks off Tuesday.
“Neil has just renewed his Philippine passport, while Schrock has already said he will be at the Qatar training camp,” Araneta said of the stint that will serve as a crash workout of the Filipinos before they resume their campaign in the second round of the FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
The chief of football’s national governing body said that the rest of 26 players in the national pool that will be in Qatar will be named shortly, “because we are still resolving some passport issues concerning some of the players.”
Among those whose call of duty for the Azkals is being highly anticipated is prolific Spanish striker Bienvenido Marañón, whose naturalization papers have been approved by Congress and is awaiting President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature.
In a virtual press conference two weeks ago, national coach Scott Cooper showed keen interest in having Marañón aboard in boosting the team’s offensive clout but also acknowledged he had to balance the overall needs of the side in their campaign.
"I and all the staff are updating, looking at teams, and making sure the balance is right," the English tactician said then.
Keeper Etheridge, 31, and midfielder Schrock, 34, have served as the backbone of the Azkals in previous international competition, providing the needed experience and stability in their respective key positions.
Araneta said the Philippines were looking for tune-up matches in Qatar since Syria and the Maldives will also be in Doha before proceeding to the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers in Suzhou, China.
The Chinese host the Group A bubble, which comprises the Philippines, Syria, Guam and the Maldives.
The unbeaten Syrians enter with 5 wins, good for 15 points, while the hosts are running second with 7 points with two wins and one draw, while the Filipinos are in third with 7 points after chalking up two wins against one setback and one draw.
With 6 points with two wins against three losses, the Maldivians are in fourth place while the Guamanians hog the cellar after losing all of their five matches.
The group topnotcher will advance outright to the third round of the World Cup and Asian Cup while the runner-up, if it winds up among the 4 best second-placers spread across the 8 qualifying groups, could also make it to the next phase.
The Azkals kick off their stint in Suzhou against Guam on June 3, then face China on June 9 before tackling the Maldives in their last match one 15.
Catching up with Syria is beyond reach, Araneta said, but he was banking on the Azkals repeating over the Guamanians and Maldivians, whom they beat 4-1 and 2-1, respectively, in the first round, to keep their Asian Cup hopes at least alive.
“I know it will be a real challenge, but if we can draw with China then our chances of returning at least to the Asian Cup would be better,” Araneta said.
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