Kyrgyzstan vs Philippines
FIFA International Friendly
Tuesday, September 6
Kickoff 10:30 pm
The Azkals play their first full international match since the upset of North Korea last March when they take on Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek on Tuesday. This was supposed to be the second game in the September FIFA international window but a home friendly against Turkmenistan was canceled after the Central Asian opponents begged off, citing injuries to their squad.
There is no shortage of talking points going into this match.
No Schröck, Reichelt, and Rota
Neither Azkals management nor his club, Ceres La Salle, would elaborate, but Stephan Schröck will not be making the trip. The midfielder, who has just turned 30, has 4 international goals for the Philippines. No explanation was given for his absence on the roster. He was also not at training in Rizal Memorial on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, August 31, it was reported that Patrick Reichelt is also ruled out, not only for this game but for the Suzuki Cup. The Ceres player has suffered an ACL injury. Reichelt would've been useful either on the flanks or on top, and his loss is a major blow.
Like Reichelt, Simone Rota, the Filipino-Italian defender, is set to undergo surgery for knee injuries sustained in a recent UFL match. He will be sidelined for 6 to 7 months and will miss November's Suzuki Cup as well.
With Juani Guirado retiring after the North Korea match in March, Rota, 31, could have been an option to slide over from right back and team up with Amani Aguinaldo in central defense. Now that's an impossibility for the short and medium term.
Stephan Palla, the Fil-Austrian left-sided midfielder, is reportedly injured and won't play.
Dooley said he identified Dennis Villanueva as Aguinaldo's probable partner on Tuesday. Like Aguinaldo, Villanueva also plays for Global. He traces his roots to Laiya, Batangas but was raised in Italy where he played in the youth system of Serie A club Lazio. Villanueva, 23, is usually a defensive central midfielder. In the last Suzuki Cup, he was on the roster but was not deployed.
All eyes will be on the youthful central defense partnership of Aguinaldo and Villanueva on Tuesday. The retirements of Guirado, Rob Gier, and Jerry Lucena have left a void in that spot that needs to be filled in the lead-up to the Suzuki Cup.
Fortunately Azkals fans will see plenty of familiar faces in the lineup. Both Younghusband brothers are likely to be there, as well as a full contingent from Ceres, namely Manny Ott, Martin Steuble, and Roland Müller, who will compete with Patrick Deyto and Neil Etheridge for the start in goal. Etheridge will fly directly to the Kyrgyzstan capital from England. Misagh Bahadoran is also a likely starter. Daisuke Sato, who planed in from Romania, was also present and was his usual feisty and intense self in Tuesday's training.
Azkals manager Dan Palami did say that although striker Javi Patiño is not playing on Tuesday, he has committed to the Suzuki Cup, which kicks off in the Philippine Sports Stadium on November 19 with a home game versus Singapore. Indonesia follows suit on November 22, then the final group stage match against champions Thailand on November 25.
Patiño plays for Chinese Super League team Henan Jianye, and their season is scheduled to end in the first week of November.
Iain Ramsey, the Filipino-Aussie, is in the lineup and was at training on Tuesday.
Kaya FC's Junior Muñoz, meanwhile, has earned his first Azkals call-up. The midfielder was raised in Holland.
Mike Ott: Our surprise?
Thomas Dooley, the Azkals coach, is very high on Manny's kid brother Mike, who is jetting in from Germany to Kyrgyzstan.
Mike Ott is a striker who, according to Dooley, can slot in at either central forward or "in the hole" in the #10 spot. Mike stars for FC Nuremberg II, the reserve team of second-tier Bundesliga side Nuremberg. Nuremberg II plays in Regionalliga Bayern, one of 5 regional leagues that comprise the 4th tier of German professional football.
Dooley has scouted the 21-year-old in person and marvels at his finishing, intelligence, and passing skills. While undersized for a #9 center forward, Dooley said Mike's keen eye for goal makes up for that deficiency. Look for him to make an appearance in the second half on Tuesday.
To play them or not to play them?
Some of the players on the team have little or no chance of being in the Suzuki Cup. The ASEAN championship is not played during FIFA international windows, so clubs have no obligation to release their players for national team duty.
In all likelihood that means Etheridge, Sato, Ramsay, and Mike Ott won't be available in November. Etheridge is between the sticks at Walsall, a club in the English third tier, while Sato is now playing for a Romanian club.
Since this friendly is considered a lead-up to the Suzuki campaign, it's a fair question to ask if only players committed to the Suzuki Cup should be fielded. But Dooley definitely wants the strongest side for every game.
"There is so much at stake. We want to get good results and get ranking points," said the coach.
"I want to win every game and I want go to Kyrgyzstan and win with the best players available."
The Philippines is ranked 134th in the world, and in its sub-confederation only Thailand (120) is ranked higher, with Vietnam hot on the Philippines' heels, 4 slots adrift.
In FIFA's eyes, AFF Suzuki Cup matches are friendlies and thus don't count as much as competitive matches. Therefore there are relatively few ranking points to be gained, especially since a team tends to get more points when they beat higher-ranked opposition. This means toppling Kyrgyzstan would be a huge ranking point boost.
There are no easy routes to Bishkek, and the travel will make it a real ordeal. Palami said the team has yet to finalize its travel plans as of Wednesday. One proposed itinerary is a 36-hour slog. There are also options to pass through Urumqi in western China, Astana in Kazakhstan, or even through Turkey.
Bishkek is only about 5,000 kilometers away from Manila, nearly 2,000 nearer than Dubai. But unless Kyrgyzstan-Philippines bilateral trade increases dramatically soon, direct flights are unlikely.
Thankfully, the cancellation of the Friday game against Turkmenistan could allow the side to leave a day early. There's also just a two-hour time difference between the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan, which sits north of western India.
The opponents are also going to be fired up. On Tuesday they toppled neighbors Kazakhstan in a home friendly, 2-0. The Kazakhs are ranked 96th in the world.
Kyrgyzstan finished 3rd in a World Cup qualifying group that included Australia, Jordan, and Tajikistan. They won't be taking part in Russia 2018 but will be involved in 2019 Asian Cup qualifying next year.
The Philippines and Kyrgyzstan will meet once again in November in the PSS, likely the Azkals' last tuneup before the Suzuki Cup. But this first meeting next Tuesday will be a great barometer of where the Azkals stand as of the moment.
Possible starting formation:
Ramsay PhilYH JamesYH
Sato Villanueva Aguinaldo Steuble