Azkals-Kyrgyzstan preview: Fitness a concern

Philippines vs Kyrgyzstan
FIFA International Friendly
Wednesday, November 9
Rizal Memorial Stadium
Live on ABS-CBN S+A HD
Delayed telecast on ABS-CBN S+A

Under a dark and gloomy sky in McKinley Hill Stadium last Friday, the national team toiled under the watchful eye of coach Thomas Dooley. Despite two recent setbacks in friendlies to Bahrain and North Korea, there are still rays of sunshine in the Azkals camp.

Foremost was the presence of midfielder Hikaru “Pika” Minegishi in the squad. The wide player from Global, son of a Japanese father and Filipina mother, recently bagged the Golden Ball award in the UFL as its best player.

Minegishi, 25, is getting his Filipino passport sorted out, and he says it will be in his hands within the next few days. That will allow him to finally play for the Azkals, probably in the Suzuki Cup. He has not made the Kyrgyzstan squad, perhaps because his passport is still being processed.

“I like his speed and work ethic,” gushes Dooley. “He is very unpredictable and keeps defenders busy.” Minegishi has struck 20 times for Global in his two years with the club. 

Dooley praised Minegishi's off-the-ball movement to his face after training, saying his off-the-ball runs “would be a big help” to the side in its upcoming games.

Minegishi, who was developed in the Sendai University football team, can play on either wing, meaning he will compete for playing time with the likes of Iain Ramsay, James Younghusband, and perhaps even Stephan Schrӧck on the flanks. 

There were some other new faces and returnees in the practice session. Kaya's Shirmar Felongco, a left-sided defender with recent AFC Cup experience, was there, as was Green Archers United's Dodong Villareal. 

Marco Casambre from Global also attended. The Philippines U19 NT centerback is considered one of the hottest young defenders in the country. Enrolled in UP, he was part of the Maroons team that recently won the Unigames in Dumaguete. It's believed he will further boost Anto Gonzales' team in the upcoming UAAP season. Casambre already has plenty of experience with Global, both in the UFL and in the Singapore Cup. 

Another recent call-up, defender Camelo Tacusalme from JP Voltes, is injured and did not participate.

Dooley also bared a list of players whose participation in both the Kyrgyzstan friendly and Suzuki Cup is still up in the air. The team is apparently still negotiating for Daisuke Sato to play in the tournament. Sato is currently with CSM Politehnica Iasi in the Romanian league. Ditto for Luke Woodland, who plays in England. Neither Oldham, Woodland's club, nor Iasi are obliged to release players for the Suzuki Cup since the competition, which begins on November 19 and runs into December, does not take place during FIFA international windows.

Sato has been named to the team for Wednesday.

Mike Ott, who scored sensationally versus Bahrain coming off the bench, is also in this category. Dooley says there is still some hope that the Nürnberg II striker will be able to join the Suzuki Cup. Nürnberg II is essentially the B team of Nürnberg in the second tier of the German pyramid. 

But Dooley did assure that Ramsay would be included for both the friendly and the Suzuki. Javier Patiño, the prolific goalscorer for Henan Jianye in China, is expected to play for the team in the Suzuki at the very least. 

The current Azkals team has only one injury concern, and that is striker Misagh Bahadoran. The Global star did participate in Friday's scrimmage in training, but he says he is still feeling the effects of the thigh injury sustained in the North Korea friendly a month ago. My guess is he won't start on Wednesday but could come off the bench. 

Fitness and conditioning is definitely on the mind of Dooley at the moment. Fortunately he has Global's conditioning coach, Madel Galvez on board. Galvez is also in charge of the fitness of the UP Men's Basketball team. 

Both Galvez and Dooley are careful not to overwork the players. Dooley says that in the previous set of friendlies, he noticed that some of the players really looked weary. He was surprised to learn that a few of them were even training and playing friendlies with their clubs during the camp with the Azkals. 

Dooley was very candid about the struggle to get the team fit but was also upbeat about the team's chances.

It will be very hard to get 100% fit for Suzuki Cup. But if we are mentally strong, with a positive attitude and self-belief, we can cover that (lack of fitness).” 

The team first needs to hurdle Kyrgyzstan. The Azkals stunned the higher-ranked Central Asians in Bishkek in September via a 2-1 scoreline. But those who caught the live streaming know that the scoreline flattered the Philippines. Once again we were rescued by a mythical performance from Neil Etheridge, who denied the home team repeatedly, including a late penalty save. 

The uptempo Kyrgyz game will test our fitness while goalscorer Vitalij Lux will look to beat either Roland Müller, Patrick Deyto, or Nick O'Donnell. 

Team spirit will be key in both the friendly and the Cup. Dooley says he shares his past experiences with his current charges to motivate them. 

When I joined Schalke 04 we had finished 14th in the Bundesliga. The team worked with each other, had a great fighting spirit. We really helped each other. Our goal was to finish 9th and we finished 3rd and won the UEFA Cup the next year,” said the coach, balling his hand into a fist for emphasis. 

Dooley also recalls the USA side that reached the second round of the 1994 World Cup, losing to eventual winner Brazil. He said that was a battling team that was 70% composed of inexperienced college players.

The coach certainly thinks we can succeed as long as we believe and execute.

If every player brings 100% of his capability to every game then I'm really not skeptical about our chances in the Suzuki Cup.” 

AFF Suzuki Cup Group A Schedule
Philippine Sports Stadium Bulacan

Saturday, November 19
Philippines vs Singapore
 
Tuesday, November 22
Philippines vs Indonesia
 
Friday, November 25
Philippines vs Thailand

All matches kick off at 8:00 pm 

– Rappler.com

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.