(Al-Maktoum Stadium, Dubai)
5:30 p.m. (9:30 p.m. Manila time) – South Korea vs Philippines
PLAYING in the biggest tournament of their lives, the Philippine Azkals hope to make the most out of their AFC Asian Cup debut against powerhouse South Korea today at the Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.
Kick-off is at 5:30 p.m. (9:30 p.m. Manila time), where the Azkals are eyeing to make a respectable performance in their first stint in the continent’s biggest football competition.
Swede coach Sven-Goran Eriksson stressed the need of the support from the Pinoy community in the United Arab Emirates, as the Philippines is not just contented of being a part of the 24-team field, the largest in Asian Cup history.
“I believe that we can (pull through) for good and go the next stage. I am confident. The players, they have confidence. I believe we can go to the next stage,” said Eriksson during a press conference in front of Dubai-based Filipino media Saturday.
It was a fulfillment for the Azkals to make it this far, as skipper Phil Younghusband promised that his troops will leave everything on the pitch to make the improbable possible.
“This is our first Asian competition. We are excited to play (against) the best teams in Asia. We are glad to finally be here,” said Younghusband, currently the all-time leading Filipino goalscorer.
“We are looking forward to the game with South Korea. They are one of the competition favorites. It will be a tough game,” he added.
After the Koreans, the Philippines will meet China and fellow debutants Kyrgyzstan in Group C, as the Azkals look to extend their stay in UAE by advancing to the knockout stage.
Having qualified for the Asian Cup for the first time and fresh from reaching the AFF Suzuki Cup semifinals, the Philippines is still on high.
For Luke Woodland, who was born in Abu Dhabi and relocated to England when he was two years old, the Azkals midfielder is upbeat of a strong showing that will boost the country’s football.
While no Philippine player has previously appeared in a tournament of this magnitude, they are under tutelage of one of the competition’s most experienced head coaches in Eriksson, who has managed various clubs in Sweden, Portugal, Italy and China, as well as national teams like England, Mexico and Ivory Coast.
The 70-year-old coach had trips to three Fifa World Cups, and having such experience is invaluable for the Azkals.
”For me, Sven - growing up in the UK as well - he was in my prime England days with (Steven) Gerrard, (Frank) Lampard, all those boys, so having a coach like Sven, he’s got the wisdom, he’s been through so many squads, you can’t question what he’s doing,” said Woodland.
”For the boys there’s no better coach for us at the moment, and Scott (Cooper), Chris (Greatwich), all the other boys behind Sven. It’s perfect for us going into this tournament with the history and knowledge Sven’s got, and Scott backing him up,” he added.
The Koreans will miss Son Heung-Min, considered as the best Asian player to grace in the English Premier League, But even without the Tottenham Spurs standout, South Korea is still a tough nut to crack for the Philippines.