Azkals gird for AFF, Asian, World Cup qualifying
Olmin Leyba (The Philippine Star) - January 10, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Azkals brace for tough competition in two major fronts this year as they resume their campaign in the joint 2018 FIFA World Cup-2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying tournament then gun for a breakthrough triumph in the 2016 Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup the country is hosting.

The Pinoy booters, who opened the year with a four-spot leap in the world rankings at 135th, will play Uzbekistan in Tashkent on Mar. 24 and North Korea five days later at the Rizal Memorial Stadium to wrap up their assignments in Group H. Although already out of the World Cup,  Phl XI needs to finish third in the group to advance to the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers.

The Suzuki Cup group stage, on the other hand, will blast off by November or December, with the Azkals enjoying home-field advantage in one of the two groups. The Philippine Football Federation is eyeing the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bulacan as main venue and Rizal as secondary site.

As he charts his training plans for the Azkals, coach Thomas Dooley hopes to further develop and give more exposure to local-based prospects in anticipation of the difficulty of getting the overseas-based stalwarts for longer periods of training.

“We have to think about the future of Philippine football. Our home-grown players are getting better and the difference between the international players and the players over here is not that big anymore,” Dooley told The  STAR.

He admitted that the mainstays plying their trade in European leagues do add a lot of quality but factors such as travel time to Manila and lack of time to train with the team often set in.

“Our international players are better, that is not a question; otherwise, they wouldn’t play in those leagues. The difficult part is that they have to travel many, many hours to get here and they are losing time because they are running with the clock to get here,” he said.

“We don’t have enough time to train together and that makes it difficult. In addition they need to deal with time change and the difficult climate. That takes time, too. So the international players are a little bit under pressure. When they are coming over here, they need to show that they are better than the ones we have here in the Philippines when it counts. That will be more and more difficult,” he added.

Dooley has actually started calling up young guns to join the Azkals’ training camp.

“We are trying to get the young players a little bit more often together so that they know each other better and the way we want to play. Our goal is Suzuki Cup and Asian Cup. We need to be focused on that too, and the more the players are together and play together, the better it will be. That all doesn’t mean we are not focusing on winning the games. We want to win every game,” he said.

The Azkals mentor said Phl XI was supposed to take part in a tournament in Singapore end of this month but learned it had been cancelled.

“Maybe we can schedule a friendly here in the Philippines, that would be a good preparation,” he said.

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