Playing away in arctic conditions with the temperature approaching ten below zero is a test for any team. But when the side in question has come from the sunshine and humidity of a tropical country, then the challenge is enormous regardless of the opponent. Such conditions greeted the Philippines when they played in Mongolia on Tuesday in the second leg qualifying play-off for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup.
Adding further to the hardship for the south-east Asians was the altitude in Ulan Bator, with the match staged at the MFF Football Centre, some 1,400 metres above sea level. The Azkals had already undergone a tumultuous build-up being in Japan last Friday when the disastrous earthquake struck.
The visitors held a 2-0 lead from last month’s first leg, and when midfielder James Younghusband opened the scoring after just three minutes the Filipinos appeared on their way to a comfortable victory. However Mongolia drew themselves level on 21 minutes courtesy of captain Lumbengarav Donorov, and thirteen minutes later they hit the front on the night when Garidmagnai Bayasgalan converted a spot-kick. With a berth in the tournament’s qualifying group on the line, Mongolia went on the offensive after the restart, but the Philippines remained resilient to hang for a 3-2 aggregate victory.
With their initial goal achieved, coach Michael Weiss could finally breathe a sigh of relief. “It was indeed a hard game for us,” the 46-year-old German told FIFA.com. “The cold weather did take its toll and our players found it difficult to play as well and as fast as in the previous game. This largely reduced our potency in the front.”
“Our opponents were aware of this and they made the best of their advantages to give us a hard time. Capitalising on their physical edge they threatened us using long-ball techniques and although they managed to score twice, our players kept their cool to hold them off for the necessary result,” he added.
Next building block awaits
With the progression sealed, the Azkals, though, are hardly allowed time for celebration as they must gear up for next week's qualifying group campaign, where they will do battle alongside hosts Myanmar, as well as Palestine and Bangladesh, with the top-two finishers advancing to the second-tier Asian finals itself. For coach Weiss, the play-off against Mongolia provided his side with a good chance to sharpen their form and gain experience despite key striker Phil Younghusband suffering a hamstring injury during the game.
"It will be hard for Younghusband to recover in a few days to be fit for the opener but the good thing is that the team has begun to gel well after the two games with Mongolia. Also we have not only our overseas-based players but also several local youngsters to reinforce the team so we have got some good preparation for the competition."
Philippines open up against Myanmar on Monday, with whom they fought out a goalless draw in last December's AFF Suzuki Cup. Next awaiting them is Palestine before a final contest against Bangladesh.
“The opening match is important for us as Myanmar are a good team with skilful and pacy players. Palestine should be a hard team to compete against, while Bangladesh represents a major force in south Asia. But despite all this I am confident we have the players capable of matching our opponents,” he added.
Philippines have largely remained out of the Asian limelight, with previous attempts to qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup ending in failure. Understandably Weiss is now seeking to create history with the Azkals by taking the team to their first Asian finals. "The assignment ahead is formidable but based on our recent performances in both matches, and also in training, we are optimistic. We will do our utmost to fulfil our mission.”