The World Cup dream lives on

Sun Star Bacolod - - Opinion -

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OLLOWING last Wed­nes­day’s draw, the Philip­pine Azkals found it­self join­ing China, Syria, the Mal­dives and Guam in Group A of the 2022 Fifa World Cup Asian qual­i­fiers sec­ond round.

It could have been worse. Both in the top 10 of the AFC and ranked 74 and 83 in the world re­spec­tively, China and Syria ap­pear to be the most for­mi­da­ble teams in this group as Mal­dives (151) and

Guam (193) are ranked way below the Azkals (124).

But with a home and away format, the Azkals have a big chance of pulling off up­sets against the two Asian pow­er­houses. The same can be said, though, of the Mal­dives and Guam, which should be out look­ing out to scalp stronger teams and, there­fore, must never be taken lightly.

If the Azkals top Group C or fin­ish among the four best run­ners-up across all groups, they would ad­vance to the third round as well as the 2023 Asian Cup.

For now, it is best to mark your cal­en­dars.

The Philip­pines’ World Cup qual­i­fier cam­paign be­gins on Sept. 5 against Syria at the Panaad Sta­dium in Ba­colod City, where all the team’s home games will be held. The team will then face Guam on Sept. 10 for its first away match, be­fore re­turn­ing to Ba­colod to face ri­vals China on Oct. 15. The Azkals will have two away matches the fol­low­ing month: against the Mal­dives on Nov. 14 and against Syria on Nov. 19, its last for the year.

In 2020, the Azkals will have three re­main­ing matches: at home against Guam on March 26, away against China on June 4, and at home against the Mal­dives on June 9.

So how did the Azkals get this far? Ow­ing to its rank­ing, the Philip­pines earned a bye to the sec­ond round of pre­lim­i­nary qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Prior to the draw, it played two friendlies: against the Chi­nese na­tional team and the coun­try’s big­gest club Guangzhou Ever­grande.

The re­sults were promis­ing. De­spite los­ing 2-0 to China, the Azkals will con­sider this as an im­prove­ment over its 3-0 de­feat to the same team in the Asian Cup last Jan­uary in Dubai. The draw against sev­en­time Chi­nese Su­per League cham­pi­ons Guangzhou speaks a lot as well about the Azkals’ prepa­ra­tions.

The Azkals, though, would need to do more in the qual­i­fiers to win against China or se­cure a draw at least. The same thing with Syria.

For sure, China will be wary of the Philip­pines and would not take the team lightly. Be­sides, the

Asian gi­ant is des­per­ate to qual­ify for the World Cup af­ter many long years of ab­sence frp, the big­gest sport­ing event on the planet. The Syr­ian team, on the other hand, will be de­ter­mined to suc­ceed to lift the spir­its of a coun­try rav­aged by war.

The Azkals? Per­haps they will fight for the sur­vival of foot­ball in the coun­try.

The sport isn’t in a very healthy state these days, es­pe­cially in the club foot­ball scene.

That means ev­ery win from the Azkals dur­ing the sec­ond round of qual­i­fiers will be a shot in the arm for the en­tire sport.

Can you imag­ine earn­ing a ticket to the next round with a win against China and how that would fire up an en­tire na­tion?*

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