By Cedelf Tupas
MANILA—It’s a match that means the world for a Philippine football team seeking a shot at history.
The Azkals try to justify their status as the new pride and joy of Philippine sports when they face Sri Lanka in the return leg of their World Cup qualifying match today at the newly refurbished Rizal Memorial Stadium.
The 3:30 p.m. game carries a lot of significance for the country, which missed playing at the qualifying event of the 2006 and 2010 editions.
The first World Cup qualifying match in the Philippines in 10 years also gives the national team a chance to advance to the second round of the qualifying tournament for the first time.
“Considering what the national team has been through over the years, this match and playing in front of Filipinos mean so much to us,” said Chieffy Caligdong, a vital cog of the Philippine teams over the past decade.
Caligdong was one of the players who soldiered on even when support for the team was hard to come by and was there when the Azkals finally burst into the nation’s consciousness a few months ago with a historic win over powerhouse Vietnam in Hanoi.
The 1-1 draw in the first leg in Colombo Wednesday may have left several players disappointed, but it has also put the Azkals in a good position to reach the second round with the home side needing just a scoreless draw to advance.
A 1-1 tie will result in extra time and, if needed, penalties to determine the winner, while a 2-2 draw or more will send the Sri Lankans to the second round.
That’s why the Azkals find themselves in a dogfight against a Sri Lankan team that also promised an improved performance from Wednesday.
“We’re not going to sit out there and defend,” said skipper Aly Borromeo. “We’re gonna play our usual game and work hard especially in front of our home crowd.”
The South Asians held their own against the Azkals, slightly taking the shine out of the star-studded lineup, which apparently struggled with several new combinations in the squad while playing on the hard, pockmarked pitch.
Sri Lanka captain Rohana Kuwanthilake said they are ready to spoil the Azkals’ homecoming after working out yesterday. The team arrived late Friday after a 12-hour journey.
“We know that the crowd will be big tomorrow,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We want to win the match.”
The Sri Lankans took the lead in the first half of the opening leg, but substitute Nate Burkey gave the Azkals the crucial “away” goal with his header five minutes after the break.
Surprisingly, the enormity of the task of finally hurdling the opening-round and meeting big expectations is not bothering the squad.
“They (players) will say we are pretty much looking forward to tomorrow’s (today’s) game,” Azkals coach Michael Weiss said. “There is no pressure.”
The Azkals trained at the Rizal Memorial Stadium for the first time since the game on Saturday afternoon and while several players like Angel Guirado looked gimpy, Weiss said he’ll most likely stick with the same eleven that started Wednesday.
The starting eleven included Guirado, Phil Younghusband who was substituted in the 40th minute because of pain is hamstring, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, midfielders Stephan Schrock, Manny Ott, Caligdong and defenders Anton del Rosario, Rob Gier, Aly Borromeo and Paul Mulders, an attacking midfielder who has been deployed as leftback in the absence of Ray Jonsson.
Several things look to be going Weiss’ way, particularly with a better-conditioned pitch, which he described as “pretty amazing” and a far cry from the one in Colombo.
Sri Lanka coach Jang Jung, a South Korean, is confident that his squad can stifle the Azkals.
“We are at a disadvantage, but we are prepared,” said Jung, whose team relied on long balls and quick counter attacks to keep the Azkals on their heels in the first leg.
13 hours ago