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Palami braces for gruelling period to achieve Asian Cup Qualification

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The Philippine men’s national football team’s (Azkals) patron Dan Palami and the rest of the team were undone by tough luck after going through four straight games without a win in the joint 2018 FIFA World Cup/2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers. The latest setback came at home against Yemen, who claimed their first goal and points in the second round. Afterwards, the manager spoke about the team’s situation towards qualification, especially for the continental tournament.

Palami thought the team was unlucky against a determined Yemen team. Possession was almost equal, but the home side had the better of the chances before Yemen punched home a late go-ahead goal. Palami, a known supporter of the UP Maroons and Global FC, lamented their inability to take their chances on the night, saying, “If you don’t score and don’t convert all those chances, there’s no way to win the game.”

The Azkals created a good number of opportunities throughout the match, although the same could be said of their opponents, who pounced on every mishap the defense made. Quality-wise, few would argue that the Azkals did not have the better ones. Jerry Lucena was presented with a neat chance in the first half but saw his header palmed out by Mohammed Ayash. In the closing half, they had another golden chance to take the lead. Martin Steuble slid the ball in off a low cross from Kevin Ingreso. The referee, however, deemed the ball to have been cleared off the line by the Yemeni defenders. Palami was diplomatic in his assessment. “Unless the referee says it’s in, it’s out,” he said after expressing that the shot looked good from his point of view.

The Azkals had huffed and puffed to break the deadlock. What happened instead was a defensive lapse that led to a goal conceded seven minutes before time. Despite the loss, Palami ruled out any thoughts of complacency against a team that look inferior on paper. “We were able to create those chances. The lapse in concentration also happened in the early stages; this time (83rd minute) we allowed the goal,” he frustratingly quipped.

A frustrating night indeed for the Philippines as they now stare at a five-point gap between them and second-placed Uzbekistan, who have played a game less than the Azkals. The Uzbeks can eliminate the Filipinos from World Cup Qualification should they beat Yemen in Tashkent this coming week. Despite such circumstance, all is not lost for the Azkals. The Philippines are currently in third in five-team Group H with the third and fourth seeded teams gaining entry to the next qualifying round of the 2019 Asian Cup.

A difference between placing third and fourth is the guarantee of entering the next round. Third-placed teams automatically enter the third round of Asian Cup Qualifying, while fourth-placed teams would have to be weighed alongside each other to determine their passage to the next round. The bright side of losing to the Yemenis, who are projected to finish bottom of the group, is that points against them will not be counted should the Azkals finish in fourth place. Due to the uneven number of teams in a group, mainly caused by Indonesia’s suspension, the fourth seeded teams will only be assessed by points gained against teams above them. Indonesia’s group – composed of Thailand, Iraq, Vietnam, and Chinese Taipei – is the only four-team group in the second round of joint qualification.

What is important for the Azkals now is to get as many points in their upcoming matches versus the two best teams in the group: Uzbekistan away and North Korea at home. Aware that it is easier said than done, Palami is keen to see the Azkals bounce back from the previous run of bad results – and not only to salvage pride. This week, Uzbekistan host Yemen and North Korea welcome Bahrain; hence, the Philippines will return to Qualifiers action in four months’ time come March, with a trip to Uzbekistan before a home game against North Korea. Given plenty of time to regroup, the Azkals’ chief backer is hoping to make good use of the long break. “We have a long time to dwell on this loss and we have time to reflect on what could be done,” Palami stated, reflecting the ailing form of the team still able to reach greater heights in the Qualifiers.

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