Villaflor: Silence of the Azkals

THERE’S been little hype as the Azkals embark on their 2022 World Cup Qualification campaign. And that is a good thing.

For one, the less the hype, the less unnecessary pressure for the team to deliver.

And with less noise, the team can focus on its preparations leading to its first qualifying match against Syria next Thursday, Sept. 5, at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City. All this, of course, doesn’t mean that the team will be less pumped up come game time.

If there’s an assembly of players that’s more than determined to perform in the second round of qualifiers, it’s this team. And that’s because this team has seen its potential during its campaign in the AFC Asian Cup last January. At 124 in the Fifa rankings, the Azkals have shown they can give higher-rated teams such as South Korea (37), China (74) and Kyrgyzstan (95) something to chew on, never mind if theirs was a losing cause in the United Arab Emirates.

Now bracketed anew with China in Group A of the Asian qualifying section, the Philippines will also face Syria (83), the Maldives (151) and Guam (193) in home-and-away round robin matches. The Azkals’ first assignment against Syria, however, could be an early make-or-break encounter for the home team.

A win would not only be an upset, it would give the Azkals solid footing to maintain a successful qualifying campaign that runs until June 2020. Remember, only the group winners and top four runners-up across all eight groups will qualify for the third round.

That means it is imperative for the Philippines to finish as group runner up at the very least and hope it belongs to the top four second placers to advance.

So what are the Azkals’ chances against the Group A teams? Against the Maldives and Guam, the Azkals can comfortably handle the two. Any result other than a win would be a disaster.

The highest-ranked team in the group, China would clearly have the upper hand, not to mention convincing wins in the last two encounters between them.

But if a slightly quicker and fitter Philippine team shows up, the Asian giants could be in for a surprise. Against Syria this Sept. 5, the Azkals have a decent chance. The home crowd at the historic Panaad Stadium, of course, would be a significant factor.

While its defense can keep the Syrians at bay, the Azkals biggest challenge will be creating chances and converting these chances into goals, two key areas where the team has fallen short in the recent past.

Lacking in pace, the Azkals attacking third have also been predictable, and hence, easy to defend against. Worse, the rare chances the Azkals get, they squander.

No doubt the team and the coaching staff are dead serious in addressing these shortcomings.

The Azkals have been rather quiet of late. Perhaps the team’s silence means they shouldn’t be trifled with. Otherwise, the Azkals might just bite.


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