THE Philippine Azkals try to cap their 2019 joint World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying campaign on a positive note when they face Group A pacesetter Syria today at the 12,000-seat Rashid Stadium in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.
Fresh from a morale-boosting 2-1 win over the Maldives in Male last week, the Filipino booters tangle with the Syrians at 6 p.m. (10 p.m. Manila time) hoping to move up to solo second in the five-team group where the group leader and runner-up get to continue their journey to the World Cup.
Winless Guam plays the Maldives in the other group match in Male the same day.
Although tied with China with seven points apiece, the Philippines is running third due to goal difference but could inch up to the No. 2 spot since the Chinese are idle until next year. Unbeaten Syria is on top with four wins, worth 12 points.
Following their emphatic 2-1 win over China last Nov. 14, the Qashioun Eagles, as the Syrians are known, will try to duplicate their 5-2 triumph over the Azkals last Sept. 5 at the Panaad pitch in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental to fortify their grip of first place.
National team manager Dan Palami is banking on the solid play and composure the Filipinos have shown in their past two matches that hopefully could stymie the Syrians.
“If we can execute the same way we did (in the scoreless draw) against China, then certainly we have a chance in holding off Syria,” Palami said last week in Manila before joining the PH side.
The Azkals will also try to overcome the memory of their 1-3 loss to Kyrgyzstan on the same field that ended their maiden campaign in the Asian Cup last January.
Among those Palami hopes will step up is forward Mark Hartmann, who currently plays for Nakhon Ratchashima FC in the Thai League 1. He has been scoreless in the Azkals’ past four matches.
Expected to have his hands full is Fil-British goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who will be the last line of defense against the Syrian offensive led by striker Omar Al Soma, who netted a brace when the two sides last met in Bacolod.
Serving as the linchpin of the Philippine backline is Martin Steuble, who will be back in action after missing the previous match due to a one-game ban for incurring two successive yellow cards.
The second round of the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers take a break after today’s matches and will resume in March next year, with the Philippines facing Guam on March 26, 2020, possibly at the newly-renovated Rizal Memorial Coliseum, according to Palami.