The twelve survivors in the next round will be split into two groups of six that will play each other in another set of round robin home-and-away games. The top two from each group will win the honor and prestige of representing Asia in the World Cup in Russia. The third-placers get another chance and square off in a home-and-away tiff, with the winner playing another the home-and-away series against a similarly-situated team from another continent for the final slot. This will mean that there will be 4 or 5 countries representing Asia in the World Cup, depending on the results of the inter-continental playoffs for the wildcard slot.
Thus far, the hungry Azkals are toting a spotless 2-0 slate with an upset victory over Bahrain and a crushing win over an embattled Yemen. With the twin wins, the Azkals have a great chance of moving to the next round, hopefully to go on and taste Russian caviar in the world’s biggest sports spectacle come 2018.
Here is how our schedule, with the corresponding finished results, look. The home teams are on the left and the visiting teams on the right.
June 11, 2015: Philippines hosted Bahrain (Philippines won, 2-1)
June 16, 2015: Yemen hosted Philippines (Philippines won, 2-0)
September 8, 2015: Philippines hosts Uzbekistan
October 8, 2015: Korea DPR hosts Philippines
October 13, 2015: Bahrain hosts Philippines
November 12, 2015: Philippines hosts Yemen
March 24, 2016: Uzbekistan hosts Philippines
March 29, 2016: Philippines hosts Korea DPR
“Let’s take advantage of the hometown matches by watching the Azkals play in person. The Azkals will be playing for the country’s honor. The fans’ support will count a lot,” Team Manager Dan Palami said.
After the Uzbeks, the Azkals will test the mettle of Korea DPR. The North Koreans are no pushovers as well. Though ranked by FIFA 149th in the world, or 10 ranks lower than the Azkals, Korea DPR had reached the World Cup final stage as recently as in 2010 and has won the now-defunct AFC Challenge Cup for emerging Asian countries twice. Hence the North Koreans are also in the race for an outright qualifying slot.
But football being a most unpredictable game, the Azkals have as good a chance as any of making it to the next round. Things are certainly looking bright, with 27-year old Phil Younghusband still in his prime, plus the ever-dangerous Mark Hartmann, the mercurial Misagh Bahadoran, the improving Javier Patino (currently campaigning in the Chinese league), and the return of the prolific Stefan Schrock. Last year, Stefan had an ugly misunderstanding with coach Thomas Dooley, making him leave the team. It looks like all is well now as Stefan is happily working out with the rest of the team. His presence in the midfield brings much stability to both ends of the playing court.
Also expected to deliver are proven wingbacks Daisuke Sato and Simone Rota, while the midfield tandem of Manny Ott and Martin Steuble will help bolster both offensive and defensive lines.
The Azkals are slowly jelling under coach Dooley’s system. Hopefully, the presence of a large and loud crowd will inspire our Azkals to win and eventually bring the country to a first-ever World Cup appearance.
Mark your calendars, guys, and let’s give the Azkals the hometown advantage to bring us football glory!!
(Photos courtesy of sherwin vardeleon, mary ann collantes, inquirer,net, cnnphilippines.com, lifesomundane.net, spin.ph)