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Philippines’ new faces in pursuit of history


Manila: Football fever has hit the Philippines. In a week where the men’s national team ended their AFC Asian Cup qualification drought, their female counterparts are gearing up for a return to the top tier of the Asian women’s game at Jordan 2018.

The Malditas were in attendance when the Azkals defeated Tajikistan to secure their place at AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 this week, in a match that will have brought back positive memories of last April’s breakthrough qualification in Dushanbe, which ended a 15-year AFC Women’s Asian Cup absence.

Since the triumph in Tajikistan, the squad has undergone a transformation, with a significant complement of US-based players of Filipino heritage joining the team in recent months.

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Only a handful of players have survived the cut from the squad that qualified a year ago, with captain Patrice Impelido, goalkeeper Inna Palacios and playmaker Sara Castañeda among those who have retained their places.

A number of the more recent arrivals boast impressive résumés in American college soccer, including Ryley Bugay and Jessica Miclat, who have both previously been invited to attend US national team camps at youth level.

New head coach Rabah Benlarbi, a highly experienced Frenchman who was promoted to senior role earlier this month, told reporters he believes the element of surprise can be used to the team’s advantage in Jordan.

“(I don’t think) China, Thailand and Jordan have any information about the Philippine national team,” he said after the team’s farewell dinner in Manila.

“They will think that the team they will play against will be the last Philippine national team (that competed in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup qualifiers).

“They will be surprised to see 80 or 85 percent of new players and also a new coach.”

The Southeast Asian side have hit the ground running under Benlarbi, winning both matches in their two-game training camp in Japan, with their 3-2 success over professional outfit FC Speranza Osaka-Takatsuki arguably their most impressive result since last April.

 

Despite being the lowest-ranked side in the tournament at 72nd in the world, Benlarbi is confident his team are capable of surprising their more established rivals.

If the Malditas can do so, a top five finish – and a first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup qualification – could become a real possibility.

The Philippines are the AFC Women’s Asian Cup’s genuine unknown quantity, and all eyes will be upon them when they meet host nation Jordan as the headline act of the opening day of the tournament on April 6.

Photos: Philippine Football Federation, AFC

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