Philippines aim to build on recent success
© AFP

Philippines will be aiming to build on their recent unprecedented success at the AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Suzuki Cup when they commence qualifying for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup on Wednesday. The Suzuki Cup semi-finalists will match-up against Mongolia for the first time in a preliminary round first-leg tie at Bacolod's Panaad Stadium.

For the hosts, an opening win will underline their incremental improvement showcased during December's 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, where the south-east Asians stormed into the last four for the first time in their history. The Filipinos will be searching for a hefty first-leg winning margin ahead of a challenging trip to Ulan Bator on 15 March as they seek to book passage to the group stage qualifiers for Asia’s second tier tournament.

“To win the first leg is important in qualifying,” Philippines’ German coach Michael Weiss told FIFA.com. “After three weeks’ training the team are in good form and are looking forward to the match. Mongolia have been inactive for the past couple of years and they come from cold weather, so we will try to catch them out by pushing forward and trying to score goals early on.”

The well-travelled 45-year-old coach, whose experiences include assisting Eckhard Krautzen with the China U-20 side from 2004 to 2006, and more recently nurturing the Rwanda U-17 team, has warned his players about complacency against a side that are 30 places lower than them in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. “In international competition we can’t underestimate any team,” stated Weiss. “Most think Mongolia are underdogs but we must respect the opponents and focus our attention on the game.”

Suzuki Cup boost
One of Asia’s footballing pioneers, Philippines were among the continent’s undisputed elite during the first three decades of the last century, winning football gold in the inaugural Far East Games in 1913. Their glorious era, however, came to an end in the 1930’s and they have made little impression on the international stage since. In many parts of the country, basketball, perhaps due to USA’s historical influence across the Philippine archipelago, has become the dominant sport during recent decades.

However the Azkals, as the national team is affectionately nicknamed by its fans, did gain some lost ground via their showing at the Suzuki Cup, where they drew against three-time winners Singapore 1-1 in the opener before stunning holders Vietnam 2-0. A goalless draw with Myanmar sent them into the semi-finals, where they were defeated by regional power Indonesia after narrowly losing over two legs in Jakarta.

“A good result against Mongolia will help attract further attention and support from our fans," said Weiss. "I hope the team’s performance on the pitch will encourage the youngsters to return to the stadium away from basketball and pop stars."

While an opening triumph should be within their grasp, the German tactician remains wary of the challenge the Mongolians can pose in the away game. “It is expected that they will battle hard on home soil but we also have to prepare the team for the cold weather there. We will arrive there one week early to help acclimatise to the local environment.”

Should the Philippines advance to the qualifying group phase, where they will slot into Group A alongside Myanmar, Palestine and Bangladesh, Weiss predicts that his side will be hitting top form as the seek just their second appearance at the AFC Challenge Cup finals. “If we go through we will fly to Myanmar directly for the opening qualifier. The play-off victory will provide a boost for our players so we will strive hard to get the results we deserve.”