If there is one person who would love the chance to lead the Philippine Azkals in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, then it would have to be Neil Etheridge.
The current Birmingham City goalkeeper was an unused substitute when the Azkals lost 0-1 to Palestine in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, where a win would have granted the Philippines a ticket to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
Etheridge then missed out on the chance to play for the country in the 2019 edition of Asian football’s biggest tournament after he was forced to prioritize his commitment to Cardiff City when they were competing in the Premier League.
Now, the Azkals have another chance to make it to the Asian Cup for the second consecutive time. There is just that small matter of winning tomorrow, against Palestine no less, to seal first place in Group B and make it through without complications.
“The camp’s very good. We’ve been together for a while now. It’s nice to be with everyone but at the same, it’s always tough physically and mentally being together for so long,” said Etheridge.
“There’s a lot at stake tomorrow. We understand that and the preparation has been good.”
Truth be told, the Azkals’ qualification hopes were hanging by a threat. A draw against Yemen to start their Mongolian campaign complicated things and if they failed to win against Mongolia last Saturday, then they would surely have been eliminated by now.
Thankfully, though, Gerrit Holtmann proved that he was good as advertised as his 90+3 goal secured a much-needed win. The Azkals lived to fight another day and the dream to make it to the next Asian Cup is still alive somehow.
“Three points in any competition massive.
“Realistically, we knew that if we didn’t win that game, that will be curtains closed for us. It was obviously a game with a lot riding on it like tomorrow but we got the win and that’s the main thing. Regardless of how late the goal came, it’s three points and then on to the game tomorrow,” added the London-born stopper.
The game tomorrow against Palestine is a cup final in all but name. There is so much at stake that avenging the 2014 loss is the least of the Azkals’ concerns. While the five best second-placers in the groups get a ticket as well, a draw, or worse, a defeat will leave things to chance and destiny out of the team’s hands.
For that, Etheridge is fully focused on the task at hand tomorrow. These are the big games players prepare for and wish to play in throughout their careers. It will be very satisfying indeed if the Azkals manage to seal what would be a memorable win.
“The mood is good. Everyone is in high spirits. Everyone understands what’s at stake going into tomorrow’s game. I think the more that you dwell on that, the more that you think about it, sometimes you’ll end up thinking too much,” said the 6-foot-2 goalkeeper.
Palestine is currently ranked 100 in the FIFA Men’s World Rankings. On the other hand, the Philippines are at 133rd in that league table. On paper, the Palestinians should prevail over the Azkals comfortably.
However, anything can happen in football and Etheridge is looking to help the Philippines overcome a big opponent to make it to next year’s Asian Cup.
“So obviously we had training this morning. It was our last preparation before the game. We obviously know the style of play that we’re playing tomorrow. I think it will be a tough game. We know that they’re higher ranked done us,” he stressed.
“We wanna repeat history and ultimately we want to be in the Asian Cup next summer.”