Azkals to brandish big guns for home games versus Malaysia and Nepal

Philippines vs Malaysia
FIFA International Friendly
Wednesday, March 22
7:30 pm
 
Philippines vs Nepal
AFC Asian Cup Qualifier
Tuesday, March 28
8 pm
 
Both matches in Rizal Memorial
Tickets available at SM Ticket outlets and at the gate for as low as P100
https://smtickets.com/events/category/sports
Livestream details to follow

(UPDATED) The Azkals are training for their first two matches of the year during the March international window. 

The Philippines and Malaysia are squaring off for the first time since 2014, when they played two goalless draws in friendlies. The two countries have an annoying habit of finishing matches with goose eggs on the scoreboard, both in international and club play. 

In 2015 Global and Pahang failed to ripple the net in 180 minutes of AFC Cup group stage play. Ceres and Selangor played twice last year in the AFC Cup, one 2-2 draw and the other, a 0-0. 

A few months ago the Malaysia U22s came to Rizal Memorial for a friendly with our U22s. Again, 0-0. (In fairness, the U22s did beat the Philippines 5-1 in a friendly in Malaysia previous to that, and Kaya lost 7-1 to Malaysian champs JDT in the AFC Cup knockout round.) 

A full strength squad 

There is a better chance of seeing goals this time with Javier Patiño committing to the AFC Asian Cup campaign and, presumably, the Malaysia friendly. The China-based striker will be needed for his marksmanship after missing the Suzuki Cup last year. Dooley also says Mike Ott, the younger brother of Manny, will be coming from Germany. Daisuke Sato will also be flying in from his club side in Romania. Neil Etheridge is also expected to arrive. 

Stephan Schröck however, reportedly playing in Greuther Furth's reserve team in Germany, has not been selected. Two other veterans, Patrick Reichelt and Simone Rota, are still recovering from injury. 

Philippine-based notables who will make the lineup include Phil and James Younghusband, Misagh Bahadoran, Kenshiro Daniels, Amani Aguinaldo, and Hikaru Minegishi. 

Two new faces turned up at Friday's training in Rizal Memorial, both from Kaya FC. Adam Reed is a 25-year old Filipino-Englishman who is a product of the academy of English Premier League team Sunderland. Antonio Ugarte is a Filipino-American who is a descendant of legendary footballer Sebastian Ugarte, who played for the Philippines and DLSU. Read about him here.

The younger Ugarte, nicknamed “Woody,” is a creative central midfielder on his second tour of duty with Kaya. He previously played professionally in Thailand for Pattani FC. 

Loyoal Meralco Spark Curt Dizon, back in the country after trialing in Europe, also trained with the squad. Neither Reed, Ugarte, nor Dizon made the final roster for the Malaysia game that was released on Saturday.

The German-American tactician also bared two new names on his radar for the future, both German-bred Filipinos. Harry Foell is 19-year old an attacking midfielder or striker from the youth team of FC Heidenheim 1846, currently 6th in 2.Bundesliga, Germany's second tier. Kevin Guerra, a 20-year old left back, plays for Greuther Furth's second team. 

Ceres issues

A bunch of Ceres players are expected join the roster, even though none were at training on Friday. According to Dooley, Manny Ott, Roland Müller, Kevin Ingreso, Iain Ramsay, Luke Woodland, Martin Steuble, and Junior Muñoz will be called up. Also making the return to the national team will be Carlie De Murga, who Dooley says may be deployed at centerback, presumably beside Amani Aguinaldo. 

Ceres-Negros is only releasing their players for national team training on March 20, two days before the friendly versus Malaysia. This is apparently within the team's rights according to FIFA, since there is a prescribed number of days before an international window when clubs must release. But the coach is not happy. 

“I'm disappointed they are not here,” said Dooley at training. “They should be here.” 

Coach Dooley obviously believes that Ceres, whose next competitive game is an AFC Cup match on April 4 at Felda United in Malaysia, should give the national team more consideration. But James Dinsay, a member of Ceres' management staff, feels differently. This was his reply via text message. 

“We leave for Malaysia on April 1, that's a few days before they get released from national team duty so we won't be complete from March 20 to 29, almost 10 days. Our game versus Felda is very important too for the AFC cup. The Azkals' first game is on March 22 and it's a friendly so maybe it's the perfect time for coach Thomas to check on players who haven't played this season, yet he has seen our players when he watched the game in Bacolod. They are match fit and ready to play on March 28 versus Nepal. Hoping coach Thomas would understand also.” 

Dooley will likely not heed Dinsay's advice though. We will likely see a full-strength starting 11 on Wednesday since Dooley says he wants to beat Malaysia, which the Philippines has not done at senior level in recent times.

SEA Games conundrum 

Dooley also said that he is willing to work with U22 NT coach Marlon Maro to help strengthen the team that will represent the country in the SEA Games in August. That competition, for players born in 1995 or younger, will take place during the run-up to the September 5 AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Tajikistan in Bacolod. 

A few senior Azkals are still young enough to be eligible for SEA Games action, so some could be dished off to the U22s. Dooley says that Mike Ott, who turned 22 two weeks ago, “is too important to the team to give up,” but that Daniels and Woodland might be options for Maro, depending on other factors like injuries to the senior squad.

A full slate of matches 

The coach also bared the PFF's plan of maximizing the FIFA windows with friendly matches before the qualifying games. He says that the week before the Azkals take on Tajikistan in Dushanbe in June, they plan to play China in Beijing. Before the September 5 tiff with the Tajiks they might have a home game against maybe Singapore or Indonesia. In October when the team takes on Yemen in Qatar, they would like to arrange for a friendly with a nearby country like Kuwait or Bahrain. And a week previous to the away game versus Nepal in Kathmandu in November, they intend to swing by India for a game.

There is one welcome surprise for Azkals hankering for home weekend matches. Dooley says the Azkals will lock horns against a Spanish La Liga club on Sunday, May 28, probably in Rizal Memorial. Details of this game will be forthcoming, according to the PFF. 

Wednesday will be a test for Dooley's side, but the real challenge is Nepal on the 28th. The Philippines beat Nepal in October of 2011 the last time they played in RMS. Three years ago the Azkals defeated them in a pair of friendlies in Doha, Qatar, both by 3-0 scorelines. But Nepal have a spring in their step after defeating Macau in the Solidarity Cup final last November. 

The coach is hoping for a large crowd for both of the games. There is no confirmation yet of any TV coverage, but a livestream is planned.

The Azkals' qualifying campaign must get off to a winning start. According to the coach, statistics show that 98% of “Pot 1,” or top-tier ranked teams before a draw, proceed out of a 4-team group. 

Says Dooley with a look of determination, “I don't want to be part of the 2%.” – Rappler.com 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.