Philippine Azkals first hurdle: Sri Lanka Brave Reds

By Ralph Koch

On March 30, 2011 the Draw for the AFC World Cup qualifiers took place in Kuala Lumpur. This was an important day for Philippine Football. For the first round, the Philippines would have to play Sri Lanka.

For the record, I personally would have wanted to have Mongolia, Nepal, or Cambodia as our first round opponents. Now after finding out that Sri Lanka would be our first opponents, my initial reaction was: ‘Ok, what do I know about Sri Lankan football?’

Reading through the forums, the majority of the bloggers and fans all agree that Sri Lanka would be a pushover or an easy opponent, especially with the talented player pool of the Azkals. It is good that the fans are getting behind Philippine football and that the fan base is increasing rapidly, but do not let euphoria blind the reality: Sri Lanka will come to play.

Just focusing on the recent history of Sri Lanka, we can safely say that they are experienced at the international level. The Brave Reds, as they are called by fans, have been consistently participating in World Cup qualifier campaigns since 1994, as well as AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

In addition, Sri Lanka has been successful in Asian tournaments, such as the SAFF Championship (South Asian Football Federation) and the Challenge Cup. In 1995, the Sri Lankan team won the SAFF Championship, beating regional perennial powerhouse India. In 2006, Sri Lanka also showed its potential by placing 2nd in the Challenge Cup, beating teams such as Chinese Taipei and Nepal.

These guys mean business and the fans should not celebrate this game as a throwaway match.
The Who’s Who of the Azkals

The current roster of the Philippine team could well be one of the strongest, if not THE strongest Philippine national football team.

With Etheridge, Gier, Borromeo, the Younghusbands, Jonsson, Guidado, Guerridon, the Greatwiches, Lucena, and del Rosario, the Philippines will have talented and experienced players who bring a lot to the table, especially when it comes to the physical aspects of the game. Araneta, Caligdong, and Gener will provide the strong work ethic, speed, and most importantly the veteran experience. These guys have been playing for a while and this is crucial in the Qualifying campaign.

The new players joining the team are going to be a major boost for the Azkals, with the most prominent being Stephan Schröck. The German-based defender is considered one of the best players of the 2.Bundesliga, and his presence alone will ensure more stability and variety, especially when it comes to the transition offense. If positioned on the wing, Schröck can help with the offense by providing crosses from the back row, especially aimed at the towering strikers Angel Guidado and Chad Gould.

Dennis Cagara will probably be positioned on the Defensive Midfield area, stabilizing the midfield structure. Furthermore, he can take the pace out of transition and build up play more effectively, rather than booting the ball wide, hoping that the strikers get the ball.

The depth of the Philippine team will also be an issue. During the ASEAN Championship, it was obvious that the quality of the Philippine bench was not that good. The lack of experience is obvious, and, with the news players coming in, it looks like the bench will improve rapidly.

The only position that needs attention is the goalkeeping department. Etheridge is no doubt the number 1, but in the worst case scenario, a good backup is mandatory. Sacapano is a reliable man who is solid between the pipes and has good experience; the question would be: is he up for the task, to play in an international competition?” The same goes for the talented keepers Camcam and Pascual.

Assuming that Gunn and the American-based players make the team, they will provide the necessary depth for the qualifying campaign. The offense also looks quite good, with Barsales, Gould and Tuason as a good contingency plan. I see a good squad for the Philippine team.
The Who’s Who of the Brave Reds

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is a real dark horse. The squad is quite unknown, with a lot of players based in the local Sri Lankan Premier League. The league is comparable to the UFL in the Philippines, but the players have more exposure to international tournaments. The players to watch are the experienced Kasun Jayasuriya and Mohamed Izzadeen, who were both active in the Indian league, a more competitive league in comparison to the young UFL.

Sri Lanka’s football is not about the individual but about the collective. Their system of football is the jewel.

The Philippines will be seen as the favorite and the Sri Lankan team will cherish this underdog position for their matches. They will rely on the inexperience of the Philippine squad, hoping to systematically shut their game down, forcing them to play risky and hectic. I just hope that the Azkals won’t run into the open knife.

Here are a few tips on how to win against Sri Lanka.

MAKE THE MOST OF THE HOME GAMES. With a full Rizal stadium and the fans behind you, you should be able to beat Sri Lanka quite convincingly. Make sure to utilize your environment and thrive from the home crowd.

FULL OFFENSE. Do not let up with the offense in the home game. Sri Lanka will play counter attack football in Manila, and the Philippine team should make the most of it, unlike during their shy performance against Mongolia.

KEEP A COOL HEAD. Do not let Sri Lanka dictate the pace. Play your football and the instructions Michael Weiß will give to you. Sri Lanka will slow down the pace and drive you nuts, but keep a cool head and play your game.

DOMINATE PHYSICALLY – speed, agility and strength. We have the tools to crack the Sri Lankan wall and their tactical system. Don’t play dirty, but play rough. Make sure Sri Lanka will remember that they did not play the Azkals – they battled them!

With these tips, I believe the Philippines will win. Everything else would be an upset. This is a good experience for the players and I look forward to the matches, especially against Kuwait in the next round. Write history guys, and, no matter what, the fans are gonna be there for ya!

Mabuhay! 
Published in Pinoy Football Photo by Istoryadista