By Lorenzo del Carmen and Brian Lance Tamayao
The Philippine Azkals shall resume their 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign against North Korea in Pyongyang later tonight
The Azkals’ next opponent, North Korea, is currently top of Group H with nine points, having won all three of their games so far. One of these games, the away game vs Yemen, was granted to North Korea as a 0-3 forfeit after it was discovered that the Yemeni fielded an ineligible player. North Korea would have still won the match as the original score was 0-1 in favor to them.
The succeeding game of North Korea was a 4-2 home win against Uzbekistan. Prior to the match, the previous encounter between these two countries was a 1-0 Uzbekistan win in the AFC Asian Cup 2015 which was held in Australia. Seeking revenge on home soil, the North Koreans attained a 4-0 lead at half-time.
An away trip to Bahrain then followed for North Korea in the campaign. The North Koreans won the gritty affair, 0-1, with a goal coming from substitute Il-Gwan Jong. Prior to the loss to Uzbekistan, the Azkals dispatched West Asian foes from Bahrain and Yemen.
Barring any injuries or any unforeseen circumstances, North Korea’s goalkeeper and back four are bound to be the same. Goalkeeper Myong-Guk Ri and defenders Kuk-Chol Kang, Kuk-Chol Jang, Hak-Su Ro and Hyon-Jin Sim haven’t missed a single minute of North Korea’s 2018 World Cup Qualifying matches. Only two goals have been conceded so far by North Korea’s defense in their two matches played. Kuk-Chol Jang and Hak-Su Ro have contributed more than their defensive responsibilities by scoring a goal each in the qualifiers.
In terms of their midfield, four midfielders clock in heavy minutes for North Korea. These midfielders are Chol-Myong Ri, Yong-Chol Ri, Yong-Jik Ri and Hyon-Uk So. Only Hyon-Uk So has scored so far from the midfielders. The implication of this is that the North Koreans are organized with a four man midfield in mind and two strikers.
On the offensive end, one of North Korean football’s finest exports should not be ignored. Kwang-Ryong Pak plies his trade for Swiss Challenge League side Biel-Benne and already has a goal for his team in the current Qualifying Campaign. Alongside him is Hyok-Chol Ri, who also scored a goal in the East Asians’ first three games of qualification. Their partnership will be greeted with caution, but the tricky part about the North Koreans is that no player has scored more than once so far. Nonetheless, a lot shall be expected of their forwards who have the capability to test the Philippine back line. Both aforementioned strikers have already scored, so confidence is definitely not an issue for them. Another threat who usually comes off the bench is striker Il-Gwan Jong, who himself has also scored once for North Korea in their bid to return to the World Cup.
Compared to their opponents, the Azkals have six points after winning two games out of three. The one loss suffered by the Azkals was the 1-5 home debacle against Uzbekistan. Having said that, the Azkals are approaching the match in Pyongyang with the urgency to respond from their first setback in the Qualifiers. The return of Rob Gier and the frailty of playing three at the back against Uzbekistan may see a shift in the formation on Thursday.
Looking at the 22-man roster, however, may suggest that Dooley will stick to the 3-5-2 formation. Half of the squad composes of midfielders. It can be inferred that the Azkals may have four or five players playing in the middle of the park with a solid back three and a strike partnership up front. Should this be the case, a familiar face could be reinstated in the attacking third.
Phil Younghusband may have to play as a striker or in a supporting capacity as a number 10. The veteran plays naturally as a forward and admits that it is where he is most comfortable in, so there should be no problem with him featuring ahead of the pack. Other candidates to lead the line are Misagh Bahadoran, Stephan Schröck, and Iain Ramsay.
Bahadoran has been having a great year so far and has proven it with two goals scored in three Qualifying matches. Meanwhile, Schröck and Ramsay may be the Azkals’ top prospects along the wings. Both players have had their moments in the campaign so far and it would be highly interesting to see what they could do together on the pitch. Armed with pace and creativity, Schröck and Ramsay would be something the North Koreans have prepared for.
There is a contest for a spot or two in central midfield, depending on the formation to be used. Regardless of how many, the player(s) deployed here should be able to make the team tick. Based on previous performances, the Azkals rely on possession to create chances and dictate the pace of the game. Guys like Manny Ott, Paul Mulders, Patrick Reichelt, and Martin Steuble are viable candidates for the position, having played a lot there for Ceres-La Salle. Steuble, in his stint with the national team, is usually deployed along the flanks so maybe the other guys could be given a chance to tandem with Ott should Younghusband be given the striker role.
Regarding the defensive shape of the Azkals may grab the attention of some fans. Would Dooley stick with having a three-man back line shielded by two wingbacks in a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation or would he shift to a conventional four-man back row? While we can only guess, the return of Gier might imply a center back partnership with either Luke Woodland or Amani Aguinaldo. Daisuke Sato and Jerry Lucena have been stable presences on the side and it would be surprising to see a change on those areas. Neil Etheridge looks likely to redeem himself in front of goal, but his backup goalkeepers Roland Müller and Patrick Deyto aren’t really poor choices as well.
A lot of how the Philippines should play against North Korea depends on the formation Dooley will select. If he opts to use the tested 3-5-2, the Filipinos should do well in keeping the ball while gradually opening spaces to operate in the attacking third. That has been the motif in their wins so far. Meanwhile, in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 lineup, the Azkals may also find comfort moving forward knowing that there are more people behind to defend. Hence, it will be less prone to swift counter attacking plays the opponents may employ.
It is safe to say that the home side would not want to sit back so our defensive organization needs to be sharp no matter how many defensive players we’ll be fielding. Playing in a hostile, partisan crowd with no huge Filipino presence is a first for the Azkals in a long time, so staying focused has never been very important. A huge emphasis may also be placed in starting strong as their opponents can capitalize should they begin the match in a similar manner they did against Uzbekistan.
The goal is to always take home points, but in the context of qualification, it appears to be a must for the Azkals. Winning may be a daunting task so perhaps not losing should be the least they could afford in the next two rough away games.
The World Cup dream may have been dented, but it is certainly still within reach. The next step is in North Korea, and just like the unfamiliar part of the Korean peninsula, the Filipinos have never been this close to achieving a goal before. They have the chance to make waves in Asian football just like what they have done in recent years, and it is definitely something the Azkals will be looking forward to do once more.