By Olmin Leyba
The Philippine Azkals look to hone their skills against two Olympics-aspiring sides – Uzbekistan and Australia – in their Middle East training camp from Feb.7-17 in preparation for their AFC Challenge Cup campaign in March in Nepal.
Organizers of the Azkals’ Tour yesterday announced that Phl XI will kick off their three-game slate against Uzbekistan on Feb. 11 in Dubai, then battle Qatari club Al Ahli SC two days later in Doha, and wrap up with a game against Qantas Australian U-23 on Feb. 16 in Dubai.
It was not immediately clear whether it will be the U-23 team or the national team from Uzbekistan that will engage the Azkals in a friendly. In their Facebook page, organizers said it will be the national team (senior) but according to Azkals team coordinator Ace Bright, they will play the U-23 crew.
“Uzkebistan is a very strong football team, whether it’s the U-23 or the senior team. They are in the top four in Asia and their U-23 is in the eliminations for the Olympics,” Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Nonong Araneta said.
The Uzbekistan White Wolves’ senior team was a semifinalist in the last AFC Asian Cup while their U-23 squad currently holds the Group B lead in the preliminary round 3 of the AFC Asian qualifiers for the London Olympics with five points (1-2-0).
The Olyroos of Australia are in the same group as Uzbeks U-23, occupying third with three points (0-3-0). The two battled to a scoreless draw last November and will meet again on Feb. 5 at the resumption of continental qualifiers for London.
The only local club in the Azkals’ itinerary, Al Ahli SC, competes in the Qatar Stars League, the highest professional league in Qatari football.
“Our main objective in this camp is to put the players together for practices and practice matches. It’s very important that we give them the chance to play as a team against good teams in preparation for the Challenge Cup,” said Araneta.
The Azkals were supposed to take on Serbian powerhouse Partizan Belgrade in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 6 to start their camp. But visa problems forced the Avram Grant-coached Black and Whites to call off their UAE trip and the Azkals couldn’t get a new opponent for that date on short notice.