FOLLOWING last Wednesday’s draw, the Philippine Azkals found itself joining China, Syria, the Maldives and Guam in Group A of the 2022 Fifa World Cup Asian qualifiers second round.
It could have been worse. Both in the top 10 of the AFC and ranked 74 and 83 in the world respectively, China and Syria appear to be the most formidable teams in this group as Maldives (151) and Guam (193) are ranked way below the Azkals (124).
But with a home and away format, the Azkals have a big chance of pulling off upsets against the two Asian powerhouses. The same can be said, though, of the Maldives and Guam, which should be out looking out to scalp stronger teams and, therefore, must never be taken lightly.
If the Azkals top Group C or finish among the four best runners-up across all groups, they would advance to the third round as well as the 2023 Asian Cup.
For now, it is best to mark your calendars.
The Philippines’ World Cup qualifier campaign begins on Sept. 5 against Syria at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City, where all the team’s home games will be held. The team will then face Guam on Sept. 10 for its first away match, before returning to Bacolod to face rivals China on Oct. 15. The Azkals will have two away matches the following month: against the Maldives on Nov. 14 and against Syria on Nov. 19, its last for the year.
In 2020, the Azkals will have three remaining matches: at home against Guam on March 26, away against China on June 4, and at home against the Maldives on June 9.
So how did the Azkals get this far? Owing to its ranking, the Philippines earned a bye to the second round of preliminary qualification. Prior to the draw, it played two friendlies: against the Chinese national team and the country’s biggest club Guangzhou Evergrande.
The results were promising. Despite losing 2-0 to China, the Azkals will consider this as an improvement over its 3-0 defeat to the same team in the Asian Cup last January in Dubai. The draw against seven-time Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou speaks a lot as well about the Azkals’ preparations.
The Azkals, though, would need to do more in the qualifiers to win against China or secure a draw at least. The same thing with Syria.
For sure, China will be wary of the Philippines and would not take the team lightly. Besides, the Asian giant is desperate to qualify for the World Cup after many long years of absence frp, the biggest sporting event on the planet. The Syrian team, on the other hand, will be determined to succeed to lift the spirits of a country ravaged by war.
The Azkals? Perhaps they will fight for the survival of football in the country.
The sport isn’t in a very healthy state these days, especially in the club football scene.
That means every win from the Azkals during the second round of qualifiers will be a shot in the arm for the entire sport.
Can you imagine earning a ticket to the next round with a win against China and how that would fire up an entire nation?