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Azkals chase record semis vs Tajikistan

KATHMANDU – Either the Philippine Azkals book a storied place in the AFC Challenge Cup semifinals or, as in past national teams, be consigned to its dustbin.

The Azkals try to rewrite history as they face 2006 winners Tajikistan in a do-or-die elims match for the second semis berth in Group B at the Halchowk Stadium here.

The Azkals, the obvious underdogs in the Group B competitions that featured champions of the first three editions, stayed in the running for a historic Last 4 appearance by bundling out 2008 titlist India, 2-0, tying Tajikistan at second with three points (1-0-1). Phl XI earlier bowed to defending champion North Korea, 0-2.

“Our goal is still the same – reach the semis – and to do, that we have to beat Tajikistan,” Azkals team manager Dan Palami said on the eve of the crucial match set 3 p.m. at the Halchowk Stadium in this chilly mountain nation (5:15 p.m. in Manila).

The Azkals and the Persian Lions are disputing the second and last semis berth in Group B with the Chollima already in the Last 4 with six points (2-0-0). With the same card and goal difference, Phl and Tajikistan will have to settle the issue via a victory today, a penalty shootout set if they end up with a draw.

“It’s going be a do-or-die. Not the first time we’re in this position and I know the players can pull through with it. I know we have the talent to get to the semis and I just hope we are able to find the rhythm much earlier in the game so that we won’t be as threatened like we were last night,” Palami said, referring to the India game, where the Blue Tigers managed to threaten the defense with some good shots.

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The Azkals are on a high after beating India, moving on the brink of a cherished semis slot.

“I hope the team can get confidence from this victory,” said coach Michael Weiss, adding they need to play smart against Tajiskistan. “The smart team in this matchup will succeed to next round.”

The Azkals are in the AFC Challenge Cup Final-8 for the first time ever after hurdling the qualifying playoffs and qualifying group eliminations last year. They look to rewrite history by advancing the semis of the meet, and possibly the championship itself.

“We’re confident,” said ace striker Phil Younghusband, who scored a brace in the win over India, a result the Azkals view as a confidence builder.

“It’s going to be a difficult and tough game. But we have our confidence on the team that we can get a good result and (take) another step in Phl football, a history maker. It’s a big, big deal so we’ll prepare the same we did for the other game,” he added.

Standing in their way is Tajikistan, a team ranked nine notches higher than 156th-ranked Phl. The Persian Lions’ Bosnian coach Kemal Alispahi, through an interpreter, expressed confidence they can overcome the “unsophisticated” Azkals.

“Both team have shown quite a good performance but I believe we’ll be able to beat the Philippines and achieve the result we want,” said Alispahi, only on his 20th day as coach of Tajikistan after leaving Syrian club Al-Ittihad Aleppo.

“I would say Phl team, they’ve not played sophisticated system much but the coach uses what he has actually,” he observed. “The problem which they face is mostly playing defense but in offense they have a couple of good players. Definitely, we could face a lot of problem because of offense but I hope we can manage it.”

Phl custodian Neil Etheridge, who had made a number of fantastic saves against both North Korea and India, expressed confidence on the Azkals’ defense.

“I think the whole back four played well. I was very impressed. I knew coach wants to put Juani (Guirado) in holding midfield and Rob (Gier) back in defense. Rob is a great addition, picking up and knocking, he keeps a great line. Him and (Jason) Sabio are great team because Rob can dictate and tell Sabio where to go. And Sabio’s done really well,” Etheridge said.

“I just wish to improve the midfield. At points, we got a lot better, we kept the ball a lot better. Still at times we looked for pass that wasn’t really on or a pass that’s no 100 percent (precise),” he added.

Palami said their chances look good.

“We just have to play our game but establish the rhythm much earlier on so that we’re able to convert our chances and can create opportunities for the team. Our defense has been holding very well against other teams so far, even against North Korea. It will be tested again tomorrow (today) but hopefully our offensive threat can be converted into actual goals,” he said.

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