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Azkals primed for UAE 2019

Kuala Lumpur: Philippines coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has set his sights on steering The Azkals to the knockout rounds of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 when the Southeast Asians make their debut appearance at the continental championship in the United Arab Emirates next month.

The Philippines have been drawn to face Korea Republic, China and Kyrgyz Republic in Group C next month and the former England manager, who was appointed in October, believes advancing to the knockout rounds is a challenge that is not beyond his players.

“I think the Philippines have to go in with one target: to go through, to go further,” the veteran Swede told “That’s not easy but if you can do that, that’s good. Then everything depends on what’s happening.

“If we get the players we want, it’s realistic. We have to have that target if we go to the tournament. We can’t just go and be happy that we are there. Yes, we’re happy but that’s not enough. We have to try to go through.”

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Eriksson is hoping to bolster his squad in the weeks between the on-going AFF Cup – where the Philippines are currently in the semi-finals – and the start of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 with a number of overseas-born players who are eligible to play for the Philippines.

The Philippines are appearing in the last four of the Southeast Asian tournament for the fourth time since 2010 and the 70-year-old former Lazio coach has seen enough during his time with the squad to be confident he has the players to make an impact in January.

“The Asian Cup is a huge tournament, like the Euros for us Europeans,” he said. “It’s the biggest there is if you take away the World Cup. For the Philippines, it’s the first time ever, so that’s great and of course we are looking forward to it, but first we will try to finish this tournament.

“When we started this competition, the squad was very good but there are less players for every game and we have a couple of players who have some injuries. If we have all of the players available – and maybe a few others, depending on the embassy and things like that – the team is not bad, it’s good.

“If we have all the players available, we are as good as Thailand and Vietnam for sure. Then, if we are as good as Korea Republic and Japan that’s doubtful. Australia too.”

The Azkals kick off their campaign against a Korean side that will be among the favourites for the title before meeting China PR in a game that will pit Eriksson against several players he knows well from his days working in the Chinese Super League.

Eriksson spent one-and-a-half seasons as head coach of Guangzhou R&F before shifting to Shanghai SIPG in late 2014, guiding the club to the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League in 2016 late in his second, and final, season in Shanghai.

“I don’t know Kyrgyz Republic (pictured above) very well,” said Eriksson of the nation his team will face in their final group game. “After this cup finishes I will look at that, but I know Korea and they’re very good, always qualifying for the World Cup.

“China I know them very well, they’ve been very much up and down. I think people in China are expecting more from them than they have done, so I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to (Marcello) Lippi for a while.

“But it’s a tough group, of course it is. I think the second game against China will be like a final.”

In addition to attempting to qualify for the knockout rounds of the AFC Asian Cup, Eriksson sees his task during his three-month stint with the Azkals as an opportunity to plant the seeds for further growth of the game in the Philippines.

“I think at this Asian Cup, with this generation of players, the Philippines have the chance to show that football is good in the Philippines and qualifying for the Asian Cup will help,” he said. “But I think if we can go through. That will mean a lot for the country, if you’re talking about football.

“It was amazing to see before our last game, when we played against Vietnam in Bacolod, at the press conference there were 60 or 70 people and I would guess five or six were from the Philippines and 50 from Vietnam. So you see the difference, the interest in the game. Changing habits takes time. Whatever habit it is, it’s not easy.”

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