THE Philippine Azkals have a problem.
After a spirited display in their first-ever AFC Asian Cup appearance against the mighty South Koreans last Monday, the Philippines won’t be taken lightly tonight by China in the United Arab Emirates. China, ranked 76 by Fifa, barely scraped past Kyrgyzstan (91) with a 2-1 scoreline also last Monday, so the Dragons need to a decisive win against the Azkals (116) tonight to secure their place in the round of 16, and avoid complications when they play the Taeguk Warriors next Wednesday.
While it looks like another David and Goliath encounter, tonight’s match actually is a clash of legends, between coaches that is. Two of European football’s biggest names — China’s Marcello Lippi and the Philippines’ Sven-Goran Eriksson — will try to outwit each other at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
One might say that between the Swede and the Italian, Lippi is the better coach with a World Cup trophy, while Eriksson, though top-class, has nothing even remotely important to show.
Interestingly, the two coaches each handled teams in the 2006 World Cup: Lippi with Italy and Eriksson with England. The English didn’t make it past the quarterfinals, while the Italians went on to lift the 2006 World Cup trophy.
Eriksson and Lippi both returned in the 2010 World Cup — Eriksson with the Ivory Coast and Lippi still with Italy — but both their teams crashed out in the group stage. That means the 2006 World Cup remains the pinnacle of the two coaches’ careers.
As fate would have it, Eriksson and Lippi meet tonight in Asian football’s biggest stage. Lippi’s China are clear favorites, but don’t count out Eriksson’s underdogs just yet.
For one, China hasn’t really impressed, at least based on their previous game and the friendly matches it played prior. The Chinese have a problem scoring goals, and if the Azkals defense, which was stellar against the German-slaying Koreans, displays the same fortitude for the entire 90-minutes, the underdogs might just do the unthinkable.
Against China, Eriksson will probably use the same roster with the same defensive mindset that held Korea in check. With a 5-4-1 formation. The two Stephans — Schrock and Palla — will join Daisuke Sato, Alvaro Silva and Luke Woodland to fortify the back, while Kevin Ingresso, Manny Ott and the two Patricks — Strauss and Reichelt — will mine the midfield and try to create chances for lone striker Javier Patiño.
But it was Patiño who was a revelation last Monday, as he managed to squeeze past against the skilled Koreans in the tightest of spaces. Should Patiño, Schrock, Reichelt and Ingresso communicate as well as they did against Korea in tonight’s game, China will find itself in unfamiliar territory.
Having tinkered with his team’s formation over the past few friendlies, Lippi himself will have to decide whether his far superior Chinese squad should go all out or take it easy. It will be risky either way against Eriksson’s reinvigorated side.
A draw is not unlikely: great for the Eriksson, not so good for Lippi. Better yet, an upset at this level is never far-fetched.