Will it rain for Azkals tomorrow?

By Joaquin Henson

Former Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Johnny Romualdez said yesterday he’s not ruling out an upset in the Azkals’ rematch against Kuwait in the second round of the World Cup Asia qualifiers at the Rizal Memorial Stadium tomorrow and if it pours, the rain could prove to be an advantage for the host nation.

Although the Azkals are down, 0-3, Romualdez said anything can happen when the ball’s in play. The pressure is clearly on the Azkals who not only must score four goals to win outright but also need to prevent Kuwait from booting in an “away” marker which counts for two points in the event of a tie.

“Battling back from 0-3 is hard, 0-2 is manageable and 0-1 is very doable,” said Romualdez. “If we had scored even just one goal in Kuwait, it would be a different story. But there’s hope. We’re getting back Aly (Borromeo) and Stephon (Shrock) so we’ll be stronger overall. It’s going to be very difficult to beat Kuwait but we’ve got a team that hates to lose. Gone are the days when our national team would get clobbered on a regular basis. About 10 years ago, we set goals to be competitive in the Asian Football Federation and Asian Football Confederation. I honestly think we’ve arrived. We can now play competitively against most of the Asian teams except perhaps the top-level countries like Japan and South Korea.”

Romualdez said Kuwait, once ranked as high as No. 24 in the world by FIFA, is a top-caliber team. “They’re not a 10-time Gulf Cup of Nations champion for nothing,” he went on. “They’re extremely skillful. In the game against the Azkals, Kuwait displayed impressive execution with short chip passes. Their players may be small but they’re sturdy. They’re in tip-top shape, just coming from a four-nation tournament. And they’re used to that hot Kuwait weather.”

If only the Azkals scored even once in the first half, the complexion of the game would’ve changed dramatically.

“I think we got fatigued in the second half,” said Romualdez. “Maybe, coach (Michael) Weiss could’ve substituted 15 to 20 minutes before the end. We needed fresh bodies out there and maybe, with a sub or two, we could’ve prevented that second goal. That third goal could’ve also been prevented but our defense was wide open which doesn’t happen too often. Man for man, Kuwait has a deeper lineup with 11 strong players compared to our lineup which probably has only four to six players as strong. But the ball is round. I expect the Azkals to go all out.”

For sure, the Azkals aren’t licking their wounds in some dank dog pound. They’re strays on the loose without a leash, ready to bite, itching to attack and determined to run Kuwait out of town.

Romualdez pointed out that if the Azkals win, 3-0, in regulation, an overtime period will be called to settle the issue and if the count is still knotted, the outcome will be resolved via a penalty shootout.

The incidence of rain may help the Azkals’ cause, said Romualdez, although the fans in the unroofed section will be drenched to the bone as umbrellas are not allowed in the stadium for security reasons.

“Kuwait may not be used to playing on a wet pitch,” said Romualdez. “I don’t think it rains as much in Kuwait as it does in the Philippines. We’ve shown the ability to play well on a wet pitch in the Sri Lanka game. So a little rain won’t hurt.”

Romualdez said Borromeo’s absence was sorely missed in the Kuwait match. “Aly is a tough defender,” he added. “I don’t think the defense would’ve opened up as it did in giving up those last two goals to Kuwait if Aly played. Shrock would’ve also made an impact because he can create opportunities for scoring. The key was to score ahead of Kuwait. Unfortunately, we didn’t even get to score at all.”

Romualdez said the Azkals’ morale may be a low but that’s not a sign of surrender. “Any defeat hurts,” he continued. “Still, the Azkals have gained a lot of respect for what they’ve accomplished. They won’t let the fans down. They’ll give everything they’ve got. One thing in our favor is our goalkeeper Neil Etheridge who is one of the best in Asia.”

Romualdez said the PFF must be cited for sprucing up the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. “They’ve done a good job of renovating the stadium and the pitch,” he said. “It’s good that the PFF has decided to renovate the Rizal facility because I believe the national football stadium must be in the capital city. The pitch is in fine shape. I remember when I used to play, just a slight rain would leave the field muddy in minutes. Now, even if it rains 20 to 30 minutes, the pitch is still playable. Manila has the greatest selling capacity for tickets in the country so it’s only logical for the PFF to hold the big matches at Rizal. If we host a major competition that will require two venues, then we can use Bacolod but not as a primary stadium.”

Meanwhile, Fil-Spanish striker Angel Guirado underwent therapy for a bruised right calf the other day. The Azkals returned from Kuwait last Sunday and are quartered at the Manila Diamond Hotel.

Guirado’s cousin and interpreter Rafa Garcia, who was in Kuwait for the first match, said the Azkals are playing to win tomorrow. “The morale is okay,” he said. “They’re very upbeat. We’re hoping for a big win. Their battlecry is we’ll get them in Manila. If it takes 4-0 for us to win, then they’ll try to do it. The last two goals we gave up in Kuwait could’ve been stopped. But we’re not thinking of the past, we’re moving on.” Published in The Philippine Star