Manila: Philippines assistant coach Scott Cooper is calling upon his Azkals players to make home advantage work for them as they embark on their attempt to secure a spot in the next round of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and the AFC Asian Cup China 2023.
The Filipinos booked a place at the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year and Cooper – who worked alongside Sven-Goran Eriksson at the Finals and who is now working alongside new coach Goran Milojevic – is expecting another strong showing from the Southeast Asian nation.
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“We’re playing our home games in Bacolod, which is difficult for visiting teams to get to, so we hope to make the most of our home games,” Cooper told the-AFC.com.
“We have to believe our chances are good. We’re ranked third in the group and the top two can go through and we’re looking to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. We’ve got a lot of players to call upon and our progress has been getting better and we’re getting more identity and culture into the team and hopefully that will continue.
“We need to take care of our home games and be strong at home. We feel like we have the players and we will keep identifying new players who have Filipino blood and we feel we have an opportunity - if we have our mentality right and the selection right - to try to advance.”
The Azkals open their campaign in Group A on Thursday against Syria, who impressed along the Road to Russia 2018, and they have also been drawn to face China PR, the Maldives and Guam as they seek to not only qualify for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 but also keep alive their ambitions for a first-ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup Finals.
The top team in each group plus the four best runners-up advance to the third round of qualifying for the Finals of Qatar 2022 and Cooper is hoping his players can build on the performances they put on in the UAE at the start of the year to push the more fancied teams in the group.
“Our experience at the AFC Asian Cup was very valuable, where we restricted Korea Republic to a 1-0 win,” said Cooper. “We had opportunities to win it and we showed that we had resilience and organisation and we probably just lacked a little bit of ambition in the last 10 minutes, which was disappointing.
“The last two group games (against China and Kyrgyz Republic) were slightly disappointing and we didn’t do enough. But the experience will have done us well and at least half of those players will be continuing, even though it was an ageing squad."
“This is different because we get to play home and away, so it’s not tournament football. It’s a little bit different in that sense and we have got to try to make our home games strong.
“We open our group against Syria at home and this is a very strong team of big characters and a lot of good players. They have had some under par performances recently but we know they are a very good team and we respect them. But we have to show no fear, we have to go and try to win the game.”
The bulk of the Azkals squad is made up overseas-born players who are eligible for the Philippines due to the nationality of one of their parents, and building the team around those players is a strategy that has seen the country establish itself as a force in Southeast Asian football.
As the qualifiers play out, Cooper is hoping the Philippine Football Federation can further bolster the squad's ranks with similar reinforcements as they attempt to move into previously unchartered territory.
“The goal for this group is to try to finish in the top two because that gives us AFC Asian Cup qualification and a chance to go into the next round of qualifying for the World Cup,” he said. “And the key for us will be the home games. How realistic it will be? We will see."
“We’ll keep acquiring new players throughout the campaign. These first two games will be key and we’re not looking past Syria. That first game is critical to us right now and we’re putting a plan together to prepare for them. After that we will then turn our focus on Guam.
“Meanwhile, at each step of the way we will judge our performance levels and player levels and keep looking at players we could bring in to strengthen the squad and the team and we hope to keep developing ourselves to make sure we’re making the right steps forward in terms of performances.
“We need a little bit more success than we’ve had in qualifying for the Asian Cup. We would have a chance to qualify for the Asian Cup if we finish in the top two and we have to really try to focus on that if we can.”
Photos: AFP, AFC
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