source: Cedelf P. Tupas | Philippine Daily Inquirer
DOHA—The Philippine Azkals are learning the hard way what it takes to be a competitive team in Asia.
With four weeks to go before their AFC Challenge Cup campaign in Kathmandu, Nepal, the Azkals are cramming to reach top form midway into their 10-day training camp in the Middle East.
A match against Qatari club Al-Ahli was scheduled Monday night in this peninsular emirate, but the Azkals already got a cold reality check against Uzbekistan’s Under-23 team, which dealt them a 3-0 beating in Dubai Saturday night.
Notwithstanding the loss, coach Michael Weiss and manager Dan Palami believe the matches augur well for the Azkals’ preparations for the March 9 to 13 Challenge Cup, where they will face North Korea, Tajikistan and India.
“Years ago, these teams would not have even considered playing against us,” said Weiss, who arranged the training camp, reportedly costing $50,000, for free through his links with the UAE Football Association.
“It’s a fantastic result, considering Uzbekistan’s quality,” the German coach added. “These teams are not in our level, but playing against them will make us stronger for the tournament that matters, the Challenge Cup.”
The Uzbeks thoroughly exposed the Azkals’ weaknesses in the match, forcing the Filipinos to field in a makeshift defense in the absence of Rob Gier, who is injured, and Ray Jonsson, who was unavailable.
Twice, the Azkals gave up goals to Uzbekistan while playing the offside trap, showing its lack of cohesion and low fitness level.
“We are still trying to integrate players into the team,” said Weiss, referring to the entry of recruits like Denis Wolf and Juan Luis Guirado. “This is still good preparation for our local-based players.”
Palami, the man behind the team’s resurgence, said the friendly matches are their only opportunity to rotate players in the squad.
“We could play against weaker opponents, win games, please fans, but it wouldn’t be the best preparation,” said Palami, who noted that the Azkals got beaten, 8-1, by a Thai club team before their historic run to the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup.