Philippine Azkals face Tajikistan in key elimination match

MANILA, Philippines — Nearly eight years after bursting into the regional scene via the so-called “Miracle in Hanoi” performance, the Philippine Azkals set their sights on a greater milestone.


The Pinoy booters, the Asean minnows who have risen to become a force to reckon with in the regional bootfest, aim to level up as they gun for a historic berth to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup tonight in their all-important group qualifiers match against tough Tajikistan at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.


“Big game tomorrow (today), the players understand that, the team understands that and we’re looking forward to the game,” Azkals skipper and top scorer Phil Younghusband said ahead of probably the most important game in their lives.


The Azkals sit atop Group F with nine point and can qualify for their first-ever Asian Cup stint with a draw against the third-running Tajiks (seven points), who are in a must-win situation and as determined to achieve history for themselves.


Phl XI got the better of Tajikistan when they first met over in Dushanbe, 4-3, and will need to at least match the effort to produce a similar result in the return leg.


“We’re going into the game with more confidence but very wary of how good Tajikistan are; they have some dangerous players and we have to make sure we’re not giving them chances. We know that if we can play similar to the way we played away (in Tajikistan), then we’ll have a good chance of getting a good result,” said Younghusband.


Given the rather comfortable situation they’re in, expectations from the football community are quite high and coach Thomas Dooley is doing his best to keep the pressure of his band of 23.


“We’re trying to take (their minds) away (from) what everybody’s talking about – how big this game is. The outcome may be big but the game is not bigger than all the other games.


“We’re up against Tajikistan which is a very strong team so I’m trying to take the outcome (of this game) away because if you focus on what happens after the game, on what you achieve, you forget to do the little steps we have to take to go forward and be successful. We have to focus on what we try to accomplish (against the Tajiks), what everybody has to do defensively, offensively, to beat the opponent,” said Dooley.


First-choice keeper Neil Etheridge assumes the post again after missing the preceding friendly against Fiji, which the Azkals won, 3-2, reuniting with Younghusband and other stalwarts like Misagh Bahadoran, Daisuke Sato, Iain Ramsay, Manny Ott, and Kevin Ingreso for this endeavor


“This is a strong team,” said Younghusband. “And I think we have a more ideal circumstances (than the last matches last year, which ended in stalemates and stalled Phl’s advance). Everyone’s mentally and physically fitter so we have every right to feel confident going into this game.”


This will be the Azkals’ second chance to crash into the Asian Cup. In 2014, when the tournament used a different qualification process, the Pinoy booters missed out on a spot after losing to Palestine in the battle for the AFC Challenge Cup crown.