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Well-prepared Azkals U23 confident heading to Asian Cup Qualifiers

The Philippine Azkals’ Under-23 Team feels determined to enter the AFC U-23 Asian Cup for the first time in history when it competes in Group H of the said tournament’s qualification phase in Singapore next week.

Through a virtual press conference held earlier today, Philippine Football Federation President Nonong Araneta, long-time Azkals team manager Dan Palami, coach Scott Cooper and squad captain Oliver Bias outlined their ambition of making it to the big dance in Uzbekistan next year.

“We have high hopes for our Men’s Under-23 team competing in a few days in the AFC Asian Cup Under-23 qualifiers in Singapore,” said Araneta. “The PFF and the management of the team worked together to make sure that the squad is ready for this competition.

It was not easy because of the (COVID-19) pandemic and quarantine restrictions in the country but we had to find a way because all of us know the responsibility of representing the country the best way possible.”

In order to prepare for this competition a Philippine Sports Commission-approved training bubble in Lipa, Batangas, was established. The team then refined its preparations in Doha, Qatar, with great help from the Qatar Football Association.

“We’ve had two friendly games in Qatar,” explained Cooper. “It was a wonderful camp and we had two quality games over there. We had this hard game over a top club team over there and a very tough game against the Yemenese Under-23 team that was quite talented.

“So we look like we’re doing okay but we’ll find out when it comes down to the crunch and the group is just eager to show what quality we’ve got and the depth. We’ve got some ground to make up with the under-23.”

Certain players from the team such as Sandro Reyes, Mark Winhoffer and Jethro Borlongan have been part of the country’s various youth national selections in different competitions.

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On the other hand, the likes of Bias and Justin Baas, who have been used heavily recently during the Azkals’ joint 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in Sharjah, bring with them a wealth of experience at that level.

“I think what we always intend to do for the national team is to have it represented by the best Filipino players that are available,” explained Palami. “We don’t limit ourselves to college players although we did do trials for almost two weeks in Batangas in a closed bubble setup.

“We have that to check on the level of our college players, who unfortunately have had no competition in the past almost two years. From there, we also do our scouting.”

For the Philippines to make it to Uzbekistan next year, it needs to top Group H, which is a daunting task considering it is up against the home team Singapore, defending champions South Korea and Timor Leste. A second-placed finish could do but the nation needs to rank in the top four of that particular standings.

“So the previous one I was a part of was the Azkals first team so I cannot compare to other under-23 teams,” said skipper Bias. “But I think we got a quite strong under-23 team so I feel like everyone is focused on training. Also on the pitch or off the pitch, no one is going crazy in the hotel with ordering food or stuff like this.

“I think everyone is just very focused to play these games and give more than 100 percent in these games. I’m really looking forward to all of the three games.”

Written By

Lorenzo's a frustrated author who knows a thing or two about Football and Basketball. Went all green from Ortigas to Taft. Supports Liverpool FC, FC Bayern Munich and the Alaska Aces

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