By Cedelf P. Tupas
Though short on preparation, hopes are high that the Philippine Under-23 Azkals can reach the semifinals of the men’s football competition of the Southeast Asian Games for the first time in 20 years.
Senior team members Jason De Jong, Matthew Hartmann and Mark Hartmann, Carli De Murga and experienced goalkeeper Roland Muller spearhead the 20-man squad, which has 15 players under 20 years of age that could still make them eligible for the next SEA Games.
The Under-23 Azkals, who left for Jakarta yesterday, will be the first Filipino athletes to see action in the Games, with their first match slated Thursday against favorite Vietnam at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
The team will also face Myanmar, Laos, Timor Leste and Brunei in the group stage where the top two teams will clinch a place in the semifinals.
“We have a good chance to get that No. 2 spot,” said Azkals coach Michael Weiss. “We have to be realistic. We have a very young team and we will take it one step at a time.”
“We are confident with the team we have,” said Philippine Football Federation president Mariano Araneta.
The team returned yesterday from a week-long camp in Japan that served as Weiss’ final basis for selecting the squad to the SEA Games.
“I wish I could have one more month to prepare the team,” said Weiss.
Manny Ott, earlier tipped to lead the squad, withdrew from the team last week, leaving a hole at midfield which Weiss hopes to fill with newcomer Marwin Angeles, who was a revelation in the Japan camp.
Weiss is more concerned of his team’s attack rather than its defense.
“We are short of good strikers who can help Mark Hartmann,” he said.
Aside from Hartmann, strikers Joshua Beloya, OJ Clarino and University of the Philippines’ Gerardo Valmayor were also named to the squad.
Midfielder OJ Porteria and Fil-Belgian winger Jeff Christiaens, who also played in the Long Teng Cup in Taiwan last month, can also be used as strikers.
Weiss believes he has enough options on defense in Patrick Hinrichsen, Neckson Leonora, Jacques Van Bossche, David Basa, Reymark Fernandez, De Murga and Matthew Hartmann.
Completing the side are Jake Morallo, Mark Drinkuth and goalkeepers Paolo Pascual and Christopher Camcam. Published in Inquirer Sports