Rarely has a player from the Philippines, who are 137th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, plied his trade in an Asia's top league, let alone dazzled in it. But with on-song striker Javier Patino making waves in the Chinese Super League, the Azkals fans can finally boast a star capable of firing the team to ground-breaking victories.
When the 27-year-old former Cordoba and Buriram United forward joined Henan Jianye at the start of this year, there was little fanfare. However, with five goals from ten outings, Patino has even out-scored last season’s leading marksman, Brazilian Elkeson, along with K-League legend Dejan Damjanovic and Tim Cahill.
"I could not have had a better start." Patino told FIFA.com, "Not every player scores twice in his first match in a new league. I am hoping to prolong this form to finish my first season on a high."
Among those watching him closely is Philippines coach Thomas Dooley, whose side face a tough home game against Bahrain in their qualifying opener for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. While even their own supporters have just realistic hopes against the 2004 AFC Asian Cup semi-finalists, the 53-year-old former USA captain believes that they are capable of springing a surprise with Panito.
"He is the player we desperately need,” Dooley explained. “We can create chances but we are found lacking in finishing ability. Patino is, though, a striker who knows where to be and how to finish. He is a typical one-touch player in the box.
"He will play in the No9 jersey for us. Our No9 has to be dangerous, but most importantly he has to score goals when he gets a chance. Patino is the one who can give us that. I'm excited to have him for the qualifier."
Patino missed last year's AFC Challenge Cup, where Philippines lost to Palestine 1-0 in the final, a result which cost them a maiden appearance in AFC Asian Cup. "We tried to bring him in all the time, but because of injuries and his transfer to China, he wasn't be able to join and play for us,” rued Dooley. “Now I am absolutely glad he maintains his prolific form."
World Cup hopes
Born in Madrid to a Filipino mother, Patino cut his teeth with Alcobendas’s youth team before signing up with Spanish second-division side Cordoba four years ago. He left to join Buriram United in 2013 and made an immediate impact by helping to the Thai giants to a milestone quarter-final finish in that year's AFC Champions League, as well as the domestic title.
"For me, the Thai League is very special because it’s where I began my Asian adventure," Patino said. "It's a very competitive league where I learned many things. Of course, playing in the AFC Champions League helped me grow fast as a forward."
The Bahrain test marks only Patino's first-ever World Cup qualifier and his fourth in all competitions representing the Philippines. His national team debut dates back to the March 2013 when he scored twice in a 8-0 demolition of Cambodia.
"I really want to play for Philippines," he said of the Bahrain game. "Above all, this game is special. It's my first World Cup qualifying game and it should be a wonderful experience."
The Philippines have yet to register a significant result in World Cup qualifying, having seen all their three past attempts end in early exits. They may have defeated Sri Lanka 5-1 on aggregate on the road to Brazil 2014, but were soon brought down back to earths after being knocked out by Kuwait by the identical scoreline. Having scored regularly with clubs like Buriram and Henan, though, Patino is itchy to defy Asia's big boys.
"It is not a kind draw for us," he remarked on their group which also features Uzbekistan, Yemen and Korea DPR. "The competition will be hard. But we have a team consisting of some high-quality players. We will do our best and try to help Philippines to a better place."