The shouting from their big win in the World Cup qualifier over Sri Lanka was barely over, but Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss was already thinking about the next steps for the Philippine national men’s football team.
The 159th-ranked Azkals will be facing a tough test in the next round of the qualifiers as they go up against Kuwait, which is No. 102 in the world. The first leg of the tie will be held in Kuwait on July 23 before moving to Manila on July 28.
Kuwait’s Al-Asraq (“The Blue”) is a powerhouse in its region, having won the West Asian Football Federation Championship and the Gulf Cup of Nations championship last year.
Weiss knows that the level of competition in the next round is totally different from the team’s past opponents.
“It will be a different match against the Gulf teams,” he said. “We have to step up a level, we only have three weeks to train.”
The German coach said his team would need to change its strategy since it will be going up against much more talented opposition.
“We have to adjust our style accordingly,” said Weiss. “We cannot play offensively, we have to stand compact, or we will be hammered.”
Since taking over for Simon McMenemy earlier this year, Weiss instituted an attacking style of play for the Azkals, to take advantage of superior size and talent of his personnel specifically against lesser opponents they have played so far.
But against a rival of Kuwait’s caliber, the team will look to concentrate on defense – a strategy that served the Azkals well under McMenemy during the 2010 ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup, a tournament wherein the Filipinos were also underdogs.
To prepare for the unique conditions of West Asia, the Azkals will be flying to Bahrain for training camp, where they are expected to play friendlies against several clubs.
“The main aim is to get experience from these matches,” said Weiss, who added that the improvement he seeks from his team is gradual. “We have to get up step by step and not like a rocket ship.”
For the first game against Kuwait, the Azkals will be missing Filipino-German stalwart Stephan Schrock and team captain Aly Borromeo, who are suspended from the match after both drawing yellow cards in each of the two games against Sri Lanka.
Weiss said that the return of Jerry Lucena and Ray Jonsson, as well as the versatility of Paul Mulders, who can play in the midfield despite being deployed as a left back in the Azkals’ series against Sri Lanka, would be enough to cushion the blow of Schrock and Borromeo’s absence.
“Of course it is a handicap not having them, it is a setback,” he said. “But we are Azkals, we are used to difficult situations. Every game is different, but we must give 20 to 30 percent more.”
The Azkals would also be missing some top players in the Bahrain camp, as several members would only be able to join the team five days prior to the first leg against Kuwait because of club commitments. Weiss said, however, that it will be an opportunity to test other players such as Jason Sabio and give them exposure. – With reporting by Ryan Fenix.