The very difficult road to Russia 2018 and to UAE 2019 just got a little bit clearer for the Philippines, as the Azkals were drawn in Group H together with Uzbekistan, Bahrain, North Korea and Yemen.
The Azkals ultimate target is to book a slot in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and the first step is to finish as group winners or as one of the four best second placed finishers in this qualifying round.
That is easier said than done, especially having been grouped with 73rd ranked Uzbekistan, 108th ranked Bahrain, 2010 World Cup participants North Korea and Yemen.
On the surface, the Philippines seemingly had a tough draw – and it is true. With all due respect, the Azkals could’ve gotten Myanmar and Laos OR Bhutan and Hong Kong instead of North Korea and Yemen.
But then again instead of Uzbekistan, the Azkals could’ve drawn powerhouses like 2015 Asian Cup Champions Australia, runners-up South Korea, or perennial contenders Japan.
Overall, as Captain Rob Gier tweeted, it is a “tough draw, but I think any group would have been tough.”
A home match against Bahrain in Manila on June 11 is a great way to kick off our group stage matches, not only because we start our campaign on home soil, but also because in Bahrain we have a team we seemingly match up well against – 0-0 in 2012 and a 1-2 loss last March the previous results.
Salmon fishing won’t be in the agenda as we face Yemen away on June 16, but we will certainly be confident against them especially if we play in a neutral venue such as Dubai where the Filipino contingent is strong.
A home match against Uzbekistan is next, where the Azkals will hope to already have the maximum points in the bag.
A very, very intriguing trip to Pyongyang is next on October 8, where the Azkals are due to face North Korea. This may be a trip that most Azkals would privately dare not miss. On the field, North Korea could arguably be the strongest team from Pot 4, which would pose quite a few challenges to the Azkals, to say the least.
PFF President Nonong Araneta says, “It’s a tough group, not only the opponents but also the travelling involved. I’m worried about the travels, the distances and the time difference.”
“For example, on October 8 we play in Pyongyang, North Korea and then five days later on October 13 we play in Manama, Bahrain.”
There are no direct flights from Manila to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Manama in Bahrain, or to Pyongyang in North Korea.
All of their trips will include at least one stopover, and in the case of Tashkent and Manama, will involve travelling 14 and 9 hours respectively by plane.
As for North Korea, the players have to take the circuitous route from Manila to Beijing and then on to Pyongyang for another two hour flight.
However, Araneta is upbeat: “I know the team can perform. Schrock is back and hopefully Ramsay, Palla and the new guys will help.”
Be it as it may, Azkals fans have eight matches to look forward to. With the Azkals boasting of a mix of experience and youth and with Thomas Dooley having a year of experience under his belt, other teams should rightly be wary of the Philippines.
Rob Gier tweeted, “I think we might surprise a few people this year.”
Well, captain, we #Believe.
The teams have been grouped, the battle lines have been drawn and the path is clear. Again, a whole nation awaits.
Let’s go, Azkals!
Ryan Fenix is InterAksyon.com’s resident football analyst. His football column Rampaging Fullback appears exclusively on the site. He runs the football blog The Prawn Sandwich Brigade and covers football for Sports5. For more football discussion, follow him on Twitter.