There were plenty of changes that marked the Philippine men’s national football team’s road to Russia 2018 and UAE 2019, leading towards the FIFA World Cup and the Asian Cup, respectively. For once, the qualification format of these two major football events was changed. The first two stages of the 2015-2016 qualification matches are for both competitions, with group winners getting an automatic berth for 2019 and advancing to the third round for 2018. The group pooling format guaranteed the Azkals eight matches, four of which will be played at home.
Changes rolled on to the team as well: midfielder Stephan Schröck and goalkeeper Neil Etheridge settled their differences with coach Thomas Dooley and returned to the folds of the squad, the non-inclusion of James Younghusband, and of course, the influx of new blood with overseas-based talents such as Iain Ramsay, Kevin Ingreso, Stephan Palla, and Luke Woodland. All of these boded well for the Azkals in their first two matches of the qualifiers against Bahrain and Yemen.
In an exclusive interview, appointed Azkals captain Philip Younghusband shared that the team really wanted to get two good results to kick off their campaign. “We knew we have good guys and we’re doing a new formation. [but] We have confidence in our team that we could get two wins, and the plan worked,” he said. The entry of the new guys led Coach Dooley to mix it up in terms of their tactics on the field, leading to some changes in the positions of the players, most notable of which is his own plight in the center midfield from being the team’s striker. The Nationals’ top scorer expressed, “There are a few players that are not playing in their natural positions, but we got players that can adapt, I think that’s good.” Younghusband also expressed that as long as they get want they want, he felt that his team will be comfortable whichever position they are in.
Armed with such tactical adjustments, Coach Dooley always reminds his wards to make sure they understand their jobs. According to Younghusband, the mentor also ensures that the players are tactically ready. Equipped with such preparation, the team expected the results they had in their previous outings. Their captain cited, “As I said, we have confidence in our players, in our team; and if we want to reach our goal, which is to qualify into the next stage, so it is important that we win these first two games.” The midfielder emphasized the importance of winning the matches against Bahrain and Yemen, because they still have Uzbekistan and North Korea in their schedule. He added, “Have we dropped points in those two games, it would have been more difficult. These two results give us more confidence knowing we have to fight two very difficult teams.”
It was not a dream start for the Azkals, however, when they walked away with the full points off of two second half goals by Misagh Bahadoran and Javier Patiño, but they conceded a goal in injury time. When asked about this, Younghusband shared, “We knew 2-0 would have been a good result and we would be happy with that, but it was disappointing to concede the last goal.” He further explained that no matter how big the lead, you don’t want to allow your opponent a goal. The skipper assumedly attributes the late Bahraini goal to a lack of concentration on their part as they were up by two goals.
However, as they progressed into the group stage matches, the Philippine team got the hang of things, the most impressive of which was their adjustment to a new formation by Coach Dooley. Younghusband agreed that this will be their most positive attribute going forward. He expressed that, “It is not easy to learn a formation within such a short period of time. The team’s done well, the coaches have done well.” The long-time internationalist added that all over the world, it takes teams months and months to learn formations, but the squad got the wins despite adopting a new formation in just ten days – a testament to the quality of players we call the Azkals at present. Ten days – with the new players coming in, and individual club duties for some players like Younghusband, Bahadoran, and Patiño – to get everyone in the same page.
With talent to adjust to tactical changes and skills, Younghusband praised his new teammates, Ramsay and Palla, who have been both pivotal in the first two matches. The younger Younghusband said, “You can see the difference they made and the made the team stronger and it gives you more confidence knowing you have these players on your team.”
Despite the two wins, Phil believes that they need to keep on doing what they’re doing in order to get similar results against the capable Uzbeks and North Koreans. Younghusband believes, “The more we train, the more we understand our roles in the team and our positions.” He also added that the team should not be complacent, instead take this confidence into the next games.
The road is far from over and the end is not yet in sight, but with arguably the best side assemble named Azkals, the future looks bright. The dreams and hopes of the nation rest on the broad shoulders of these gentlemen. Two down, six more to go – at the end of it all – hopefully a first-ever stint in the AFC Asian Cup, or even more importantly, FIFA World Cup, has been booked.
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