Azkals face powerhouse China

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Haunting the ghost of the past will be the Philippines’ order of battle when it clashes with powerhouse China in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup men’s football tournament Friday at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Kick off is set at 9:30 p.m. (Manila time) with the Azkals looking fit and deadly following a thrilling 0-1 setback to mighty South Korea in the opener last Monday.

The Filipino booters, who are at 116th in the latest ranking of the International Football Federation, made heads turn when they pushed the Koreans to the limit before surrendering a nail-biting battle.

The Azkals looked dangerous on the defensive end in the first 66 minutes until Hwang Ui-jo – the best scorer in the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta – breezed past the defense of Michael Falkesgaard to connect a beautiful attack in the 67th minute.

Javier Patino tried to go for the equalizer with a couple of beautiful opportunities, but the seasoned, more fluid Koreans, who stunned reigning champion Germany in the previous World Cup, went on to ice the victory.

Still, Azkals team manager Dan Palami believes in their chances.

“The game against Korea, who are always present in the World Cup, gives us motivation and encouragement to do better in our next games,” said Palami ahead of their all-important match against the Dragons, who are ranked 76th in the world.

“At least now, we gained the respect of other countries and they have noticed that we are here to compete – not just to participate.”

Palami said they have to bring the same fire, the same enthusiasm that they showed against Korea when they clash with China, which clobbered another first-timer in Kyrgyzstan, 2-1, in the opener to join Korea on top of Group C.

“We need to make sure that China will be as surprised as South Korea when we play against them.”

But more than surpassing their performance in the opening salvo, the Azkals will be marching with a chip on their shoulders heading into the crucial match against the Chinese.

In their first meeting for the past 17 years, the Dragons embarrassed the Azkals with an emphatic 8-1 victory in an international friendly at the Tianghe Stadium in the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou last year.

Save for Misagh Bahadoran, who scored their lone goal via a tap-in, the Azkals had a lethargic start, allowing Ren Hang to open the match with an impressive goal in the first three minutes.

The Azkals. (C Nacua image)
The Azkals. (C Nacua image)

But a lot of things happened since then as the Azkals hired Swedish coach Goran-Sven Eriksson, a seasoned international campaigner who once handled the British national side.

Reports have it that the 70-year-old Eriksson has inside information on the Chinese after coaching three clubs in their domestic league for the past four years.

“I know the team very well,” said Eriksson, who is regarded as one of the five decorated mentors in this tournament.

“Some of the players, especially those who played for Guangzhou Evergrande and some of the players I coached in Shanghai.”

Obviously, Eriksson was referring to the Dragon’s chief attacker in Wu Lei, who was the Chinese League’s top scorer last season with 27 goals from 30 matches aside from tallying 13 goals in the national side’s 60 international matches.

“He’s extremely quick and very dangerous. He will create problems for us,” said Eriksson in reference to Wu, who led Shanghai to the title.

Patiño, who played in China for three years, believes they stand a chance against the Dragons as they also have players who can match their speed, skills and intensity.

p: wjg

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