After several delays and changes in the schedule, the Philippine Azkals are finally set to return to the pitch for the joint FIFA World Cup/AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
First up is a crucial showdown against China PR on Monday (early Tuesday in Manila), with the Azkals looking to build on a promising goalless draw against the Asian powerhouse in Bacolod last October 2019.
Kick off is at 1 a.m. in the Philippines.
Matches will be held in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. The Group A games were originally set for Suzhou, China, but the AFC decided to move the venue over COVID-19 issues.
The Azkals are currently in third place in Group A, behind unbeaten Syria (18 points on six wins) and China (10 points on three wins, one draw, and one loss). They have seven points on two wins, two losses, and a draw.
A favorable result against China will boost the Azkals' chances of qualifying to the third round of the Asian Cup qualifying process.
"I think the team is ready for the game," said veteran Angel Guirado on the Crossover podcast recently. "When I got to the pitch, everybody is ready, training good, good intensity."
"So I think all the players are ready for the game."
Several players had to beg off, including veteran goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, due to injury.
But the team remains formidable, with skipper Stephan Schrock anchoring the midfield together with Patrick Reichelt and brothers Mike and Manny Ott.
Guirado is joined up top by Mark Hartmann. Young players Justin Baas and Jarvey Gayoso, as well as Mark Winhoffer, were also called up.
"As young guys, we respect our elders a lot. They've put on the show for us, that the Azkals has done them so much great things over the past 10, 15, 20 years," said Winhoffer.
"Now, it's our duty to help them achieve their goals before they retire, and hopefully bring the country to new territories we haven't experienced as a footballing nation."
After China, the Philippines play Guam on June 11, and the Maldives on June 15.
Coach Scott Cooper has assured that the team will be competitive despite the less than ideal preparation.
"It is what it is. I'm sure all of the countries are dealing with somewhat similar things as well, but we're gonna be positive," he said in a recent interview on "Power and Play."
According to Cooper, the best case scenario for the Azkals is to come in second in the group, but this "would take a near miracle."
"I think we gotta make sure we secure third place, so we got a decent group in the Asian qualifiers," he said. "We gotta get back to the next Asian Cup."