By Patricia Bermudez-Hizon
For Yahoo! Southeast Asia
BACOLOD CITY — Riding on their exceptional triumph in the Suzuki Cup Challenge, the Azkals are set to put the pitch ablaze as they take on Mongolia in their first of two matches in the preliminaries of the AFC Challenge Cup, a hurdle they must surpass to be able to debut on the big stage, the AFC Asian Cup where powerhouses in the region vie for supremacy.
Ranked 182 in the world, the mysterious Mongolian football team, the Blue Wolves, coached by Erdenebat Sandagjorg and anchored by aces like Ganbaataryn Tögsbayar and Donorovyn Lkhümbengarav, just got their FIFA affiliation in 1998. Unlike the Philippines which has been affiliated with FIFA since 1930.
Newly installed German coach Hans Michael Weiss have focused on the defensive schemes of the Azkals and making sure that all the players are healthy, particularly the key players.
The Azkals have captain Aly Borromeo, James Younghusband, Phil Younghusband, Ian Araneta, Simon Greatwich, Rob Gier, Ray Jonnson, Neil Etheridge, Anton del Rosario, Jerry Barbaso, Eduard Sacapano, Ken Relucio, Nestorio Margarse, Emilio Caligdong, Joebil Bermejo, Peter Jaugan, Reymark Palmes, Mark Ferrer, Jason de Jong, Jason Sabio, and Patrick Hinrichsin.
In an interview Phil Younghusband said fans will pretty much see the same composition on the pitch as their Suzuki Cup lineup run under Coach Simon McMenemy. He's very positive about what the results will be against Mongolia. "The way the coach wants us to play in terms of strategy may change, but with the actual players involved, I think it would pretty much be the same team."
Younghusband adds "We are fully confident. Hopefully we can get a comfortable win on the 1st game so on the 2nd game it wouldn't matter. With Mongolia, we really don't know what to expect but we're all very confident we can beat them".
Should the Azkals advance to the qualifying group phase, they will be in Group A with Myanmar, Palestine and Bangladesh.
More than helping the chances of the squad, beating the visiting team will only further the popularity of the Azkals, now seen as the newest sporting heroes in the country. Planes bound for Bacolod were filled with young football fanatics, many of whom were in their early teens and below tagging along with their parents. All of them looking forward to their international football exposure from the stands.
Photo by AP/Tatan Syuflana