Six months ago when German Michael Weiss took over Philippines, very rarely did the national team find their place among headlines, with basketball the invariably dominant sport. However, half-a-year later the footballing passion is re-ignited across the nation, with even Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III joining the millions of fans celebrating the national team’s unprecedented success after they eliminated Sri Lanka 5-1 on aggregate to progress to Asia’s second qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ for the first time.
Having taken the Azkals to their first Asian finals at the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup in March, the victory against Sri Lanka is another feather in his cap during his tenure in charge of Philippines. However, the former Rwanda U-17 manager is given little time to bask in the glow of these achievements, with a stiffer test in Kuwait awaiting them over two legs on 23 and 28 July.
“Kuwait should be the hardest task for us so far,” the 46-year-old told FIFA.com. “They are a very strong team in Asia. I wish I had a year to prepare for the match-ups, rather than a couple of weeks, then we should have a good chance against them.”
Weiss and his outfit wasted no time in embarking on build-up for the tie, with the team back to training on Friday, less than a week after their second-leg 4-0 win over Sri Lanka on 3 July. The preparation will step up a gear with a one-week camp in Bahrain, where the Azkals will play a series of friendlies and are expected to acclimatise to the Gulf weather before heading to Kuwait for the opening away match.
“In preparing against Sri Lanka we had undergone a one-month training camp in Germany and obviously our preparation paid off. Despite the short period we are given this time around, I hope the players can make the best of the camp in Bahrain so that they will go into the Kuwait match in their best form,” Weiss continued.
Still Kuwait represents an uphill task, as the 1982 FIFA World Cup finalists are among Asia’s traditional powerhouses while Philippines have long been minnows even in regional competition. For many, a Homeric miracle is needed if Weiss’ side are to topple the strongly-favoured opponents coached by Serbian Goran Tufegdzic.
Despite the gulf in class that exists between them, Weiss states that Askals can take heart from their fast progress. “The team have improved a great deal over the past months, particularly in regards to attitude. We have spent much on physical training so they are fit to compete at this level. They used to stick to long-ball tactics but now the team play a good passing game and are stronger in organisation,” he added.
Furthermore, the team can look to a host of emerging stars who have exploded onto the qualifying scene. “We have an excellent goalkeeper in Neil Etheridge who is playing with Fulham, and German-based Manuel Ott is good in driving the midfield. The Younghusband brothers, James and Phil, impress among the home-based players while skipper Alexander Borromeo is the key in the back-line.”
With the latter missing the opener in Kuwait through suspension, the captain’s armband will be passed to midfielder Emilio Caligdong, who opened the scoring against Sri Lanka in the recent triumph. “He is diminutive but is dynamic and creative. He can provide the team with attacking spark and leadership,” he went on.
Against Sri Lanka in Manila, Philippines pressed hard from outset to finish but they will have to focus on defence if they are to catch out the Kuwaitis, as Weiss pointed out. “We will change the central defence and try not to concede a goal in the first match. Kuwait are good at attacking and recently they thrashed Lebanon 6-0 in a friendly so we must stay compact and keep the back-line tight. If we can come away with a goalless draw, then things will be different when we play as hosts five days later.”
Averaging a position of 174 in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, Philippines, currently 159th, are 57 places below Kuwait. While their chances are slim in the eyes of neutral fans, Weiss said it is too premature to write them off.
“It is a rare chance to display our improvements so we are hoping to give out best. With solid preparation, good performance and perhaps an extra ounce of luck, it’s possible for us to turn the corner,” he concluded.