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Thursday, July 25, 2024

The all-important first game

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With three camps, five official friendlies and one exhibition game done, the Philippine Azkals are now looking to kick-start their campaign in the Olympic and Asian Cup qualifiers in a big way.

Based on The Designated Kit Man’s experience in following the team for more than a decade, a good result in the Azkals’ first game will set the tone and even the direction of their campaign in the tournament.

The all important first game will always be crucial as the window for mistakes and disappointments will be too small. Every point matters and even if the opening game on November 16 against powerhouse Vietnam will be tough, still a draw or even a win will be a great boost for the team seeking to redeem itself from years of unfulfilled promise and potential.

While the first game is no less than daunting to say the least, the Azkals’ next outing is equally formidable, going against Indonesia, five days later. The Azkals need to win these two games at all costs if they would entertain thoughts of going deep in the qualifiers and book a return, perhaps, in the Asian Cup.

But this is, as always, more straightforward said and done.

“The first game is very important. Every game is important. Just like what happened in the Bahrain game where we only have 12 players. It was an opportunity to see how the team performed under adverse circumstances. The game against Vietnam will be a massive game for the country, for the individual players and for the Azkals as a team. It will be a tough game, but also an exciting one for us because we want to show something. That we want to play advanced football and not just rely on defending and limiting opponents to score,” Michael Weiss, Head Coach of the men’s national football team, said.

There are some few good things, however, that favor the Azkals to have a good start in the tournament. The opening games against Vietnam and Indonesia will be held both at the Rizal Memorial Stadium. The advantage of playing at the familiar artificial turf in Taft is a plus for the team and if at least 10,000 strong fans will be present at the grandstand to cheer the team, then who knows what grand things might be in store for the lads. Maybe, just maybe, even the football gods might smile and look favorably at our team.

The desire to perform well playing before fans is another motivation for Wiess.

“We want to go head to head against Vietnam and Indonesia. And we will be able to that soon,” Weiss maintained.

In the call up list obtained by The Designated Kit Man, at least 26 names were present. The list includes familiar names, some elite Azkals playing overseas, some players plying their trade in the domestic league, members of the so-called youth brigade, a few surprises and of course some battle-tested Azkals are also in the mix. Of the 26 names, 23 will be chosen to attend the camp here in Manila that will start on November 12.

The list is not yet final and some players have not confirmed their availability so it can’t be released yet. Coach Michael Weiss was realistic about the probability and possibility that the list might turn out to be more of a wish list, due to the perennial problem of injuries, unavailability due to some reasons and other concerns.

“I can write a lot (of names) on paper. I can also dream of something, but I’m more realistic that the ones who will show up on the 12th or 13th in Manila will be the ones to carry the fight. And I will prepare a very good meal for the Filipino football fans and the Azkals Management,” Weiss cryptically explained.

But on the more obvious things, Weiss also said that the past few camps and several friendlies have given him the chance to see the players closer and not just rely on a “list”.

“I saw around 30 players and we have a core of 20. So I have a good overview, I have a good impression now of who is ready to play particularly in November, who needs a little bit more time and who will not play a dominant role in the team,” Weiss explained.

Weiss maintained that some players have surprised him with their performance in the international friendlies. And he is keeping a watchful eye on these Azkals, who have so far shown great determination and passion during the camps and friendlies. One such player is Pocholo Bugas, who plays for the Angkor Tiger FC in the Cambodian Premier League.

“He was never really in the previous lists, but he made a very big impression on me so I will support this boy all the way because he has something that the others don’t have. Moreover, his presence will surely rejuvenate the team,” Weiss said. “This is my work now, keeping the core and giving young players the chances they need in order to progress and perform on the bigger stage.”

On paper, this is possibly one of the strongest Azkals’ lineup ever. And if the stars and circumstances align, and these players show up and actually play in the games against Vietnam and Indonesia, then the Philippines might have a chance in pulling off an upset or two in November. Fans will be equally stoked to see elite players playing once more for flag and country and another one finally making his much-awaited debut at home no less.

The Azkals’ youth brigade is also back in the games that really matter, giving the team some added punch when the going gets tough. And unlike what happened in Bahrain, some extra legs, too.

Here is hoping that stars and the planets will finally align for our Azkals, because they simply need every boost, skill and luck that they can muster before the big games against bigger and highly favored opponents. And of course, we need the fans to fill up the Rizal Memorial Stadium, 10,000 is the minimum, keyboard warriors and trolls not included.

Please tune in this Sunday, October 29 from 2 to 3:30 p.m., to Larong Pilipino aired live over DZME 1530 Khz and streamed over the station’s official social media account. Interesting guests will be on hand to give us interesting stories and positive vibes.

Stay safe. Stay happy peeps!

For comments or questions, you can reach The Designated Kit Man at erel_cabatbat@yahoo.com or follow his account at Twitter: @erelcabatbat

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