By Olmin Leyba
MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine Azkals were confident enough of advancing to the next stage that even before they took the Rizal Memorial field for their Group E qualifying match against Turkmenistan, they were already charting their course for the AFC Challenge Cup Maldives 2014 Final Round.
“I was already talking with a couple of players, especially those based in Europe, about our plans for the Fifa match days (for the rest of the year preparatory to the Challenge Cup),” said Azkals coach Michael Weiss after the Pinoy booters’ 1-0 triumph over Turkmenistan in the final day of the qualifiers Tuesday night.
Weiss said three international friendlies are being eyed in June – a road match against Hong Kong and home matches in Cebu and Luzon, with Asean rivals Thailand and Vietnam and Middle East sides UAE and Syria as possible opponents.
The German mentor wants a training camp in the US by August and more friendlies in September and October as part of their buildup for the eight-nation Challenge Cup, the next step in their ambitious bid to break into the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
“We’ll have tough times ahead so I hope our preparations will be better this time,” said Weiss, looking at rivals Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Palestine, host Maldives, Turkmenistan, and Bangladesh and anticipating the challenge in store for them.
He recalled how they went about preparations for the just-concluded qualifiers with limited time together and zero international friendly.
But nevertheless, the full-strength Azkals still clicked and topped Group E with nine points, highlighting their feat with a 8-0 whitewash of Cambodia and a vengeful 1-0 verdict over Turkmenistan.
To make sure they can assemble this so-called “Dream Team” once more for the Challenge Cup, the Philippine Football Federation will request that the Maldives tourney be calendared on Fifa international match days in March 2014.
“The final round in Maldives is a direct qualifier to the Asian Cup so it should be considered Fifa match days or be scheduled during Fifa match days,” PFF president Nonong Araneta said.
Fifa match days offer a break in worldwide club action, making it easier for national federations to secure the release of their respective national mainstays.
The PFF has also cleared the question as to who will handle the team’s Challenge Cup campaign as it extended Weiss’ tenure following the Azkals’ qualification to the final round.
“He’s been extended and will be calling the shots in Maldives,” Araneta said of the German, who was originally contractually bound for six months.
The Azkals seek no less than the Challenge Cup crown and its corresponding slot to the Asian Cup 2015.
“We always try to keep our expectations low but certainly we will still be the underdog,” said team manager Dan Palami. “But have that good chance of making that giant leap to the Asian Cup. This (Qualifier) was the first step; the second step is the main draw and we hope we continue the momentum.”