Cedelf P. Tupas
INCHEON—A Philippine football team known to thrive in adversity faces its biggest challenge yet when it battles Mongolia minus several key players Tuesday in the second leg of their AFC Challenge Cup duel at the National Stadium in Ulan Bator.
Kickoff is at 1 p.m. with the Azkals also hoping to overcome the sub-zero conditions against the Mongolians, who need to win by at least three goals to prevent the the Filipinos from reaching the group stage.
The Azkals won the first leg, 2-0, on goals from Phil Younghusband and Chieffy Caligdong at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod last Feb. 9.
Though they trained as well as to acclimatize in Gotemba City in earthquake-ravaged Japan, the Azkals managed just one training session in Ulan Bator in minus-10 degrees Celsius temperature since they only got their luggage on Monday morning.
The match is expected to be played at temperatures ranging from minus-4 to minus-6 degrees, and the players believe that they can weather the challenge as long as they stay mobile on the pitch.
“As long as we keep running, I think we will be okay,” said skipper Aly Borromeo.
The Azkals will miss goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, defender Rob Gier and midfielders Chris Greatwich and Jason de Jong.
Eduard Sacapano is expected to fill in for Etheridge, while Jason Sabio will likely start in place of Gier. Roel Gener and Peter Jaugan are on line to replace De Jong in a defensive midfield role.
As if the treacherous journey from Gotemba to Ulan Bator wasn’t enough, a member of the team, Ray Jonsson, found himself unable to make it to Ulan Bator on time because team officials already in the Mongolian capital kept his passport.
Jonsson, the reliable Fil-Icelandic defender, was not permitted by Chinese immigration to board a flight to Ulan Bator for fear that he might be sent back because he did not have a Mongolian visa, which is actually issued on arrival in the capital city.
Not even a letter of guarantee from the Mongolian Football Federation could convince Chinese immigration, and Jonsson was forced to take another flight to Incheon, South Korea, where he was to board a flight to Ulan Bator Monday night.
Philippine Football Federation president Mariano “Nonong” Araneta and Azkals team manager Dan Palami believe the challenges faced by the Azkals just to make it to Mongolia will motivate them to play well.
“This will motivate them further,” said Araneta. “I think what they have to think about is that they should be blessed that they are safe now. I just want them to refocus on the match. I expect them to fight hard after all of these adversities.”
“This just tests the resolve of our team,” said Palami. “If we want to go to the next level, we must overcome these challenges, and I think we have a team that’s capable of making it past Mongolia.”
The Azkals don’t see any problem beating Mongolia under normal conditions, but the cold weather has raised concerns.
Phil Younghusband shares Borromeo’s sentiment, saying the Azkals are the better players individually than the Mongolians.
“We’re more confident now than in the first leg because we have seen them play,” said Younghusband.
The Azkals’ German coach Hans Michael Weiss expects the Mongolians to shift to a more attacking style of play this time.
In the Feb. 9 match, Mongolia played on the defensive, tightened the spaces, and man-marked Younghusband, making it difficult for the Azkals to score more goals.
“Mongolia will and has to attack and we want to catch them on the break,” said Weiss. “We will be playing it safe. My team must stand this character test because only the conditions can cause damage to us.”
Younghusband added: “They will need to score, so they will commit more men forward and that gives us more space.”
“We expect them to come out strong, but if we hold them in the first half, I think we’re going to be okay,” said Borromeo.