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Bahrain match a stern test of Azkals’ ambitions

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After containing group leaders North Korea last Thursday, the Philippines men’s national football team braces for their most important challenge so far in the joint 2018 FIFA World Cup/2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers. Tomorrow evening, they will go up against Bahrain, a team ranked one spot below them in Group H.

Bahrain have played two qualifying games at home so far with poor results. They have yet to score a single goal while giving away five goals against North Korea and Uzbekistan. But for Bahrain, those opponents will seem superior to their next visitors, who valiantly claimed a point in Pyongyang just days before. Confidence may be dwindling in the Bahraini camp, but they might think they have a good chance of getting their qualification run back on track with a home win against the Azkals. Bahrain, of course, had won against the Azkals 2-1 in a friendly match in March this year.

A big factor in that match was Bahrain’s skillful execution of set pieces. Both of their goals came off dead ball situations and came midway through the first half. Afterwards, they did well to make it difficult for the Azkals to score. Although they failed to keep a clean sheet, the Bahrainis did just enough to stave the Philippine attack. To do the same, they will rely on their back line. Keeper Sayed Jaafar, and defenders Abdulla Al Hazaa and Abdulla Omar are tipped to start for the hosts tomorrow; they have played every minute of the qualifiers thus far. Abdulwahab Al Malood knows how to score against the Philippines, having grabbed the consolation goal in the June qualifier in Bocaue. Wingbacks Faouzi Aaish and Abdullah Abdo also exposed the Azkals’ defense when they last played in Bahrain. Fond of scoring through dead ball situations, expect any outfield player to try find the hole in what has been a stiff Philippines’ defense.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times Bahrain match a stern test of Azkals’ ambitions

For the Azkals, confidence is running high. Battered in their own backyard by the in-form Uzbekistan, the Azkals responded with a respectable 0-0 draw against North Korea. The defensive trio of Luke Woodland, Amani Aguinaldo, and Jerry Lucena held their own against the feisty North Korean attackers. The midfield also showed discipline, with the likes of Daisuke Sato, Martin Steuble, Phil Younghusband, and Manny Ott not giving their counterparts room to operate. In offense, the Azkals had their moments but could not create clear-cut chances against the North Koreans.

Playing against Bahrain is a different story. Rushing from Pyongyang to Riffa in order to acclimatize, the Azkals should retain their defensive organization. It was the key to their 2-1 win last time around, almost keeping a clean sheet throughout the entire match. Possession will also be a vital factor. It was against Bahrain that the Azkals first showed impressive ball movement that left opponents reliant on rare, quick breakaways. Armed with pace and creativity in offense, the Philippines have what it takes to repeat what happened in Bocaue. But for that to happen they will need to stay sharp against an equally hungry Bahrain squad. The dream of qualifying for the next round is still within reach; with a win, the Azkals are poised to make a deeper run than many expected.

The match will kick off at 6:00 PM in Bahrain (11:00 PM in the Philippines) and will be televised live on ABS-CBN Sports and Action.

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