Armed with enough knowledge of the opposition and a wider talent pool of players to pick from, national team coach Scott Cooper is bullish on the Azkals’ chances of making it past the second round of the 2022 World Cup Qualifying round starting with the duel with Syria on September 5 at Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City.
Appearing at the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum at Amelie Hotel in Manila on Tuesday, the Irish mentor expressed satisfaction over the Azkals’ draw that saw them land in Group A with China, Syria, Guam and Maldives.
Cooper, however, said the Azkals still have their work cut out for them if they want to finish as one of the Top 2 teams in the group.
While the No. 1 finisher will gain an automatic spot in the third round and a place in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, the four best second placers from the eight qualifying groups are also advancing to the next phase.
“We’re very positive and the expectation is to win, not just see what we can do against these teams,” said Cooper, who spent the last two tournaments as deputy to Swedish coach Sven Goran Eriksson.
“We went to the Asian Cup (last January) and performed well against South Korea, but not so much in the last two games (against China and Kyrgyzstan).This time, the mentality has to be spot-on. We have to give a bit more fight and have a lot more belief. Performances are always good, but we need results,” he added.
In in the forum presented by San Miguel Corp., Braska Restaurant, Amelie Hotel, and Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), Cooper said that China and Syria will be two of the toughest opponents in the group, but the Azkals are no longer daunted by the prospect of facing the Chinese since they have played against them three times in the last three years.
The Azkals host China on Oct. 15 at the Panaad Stadium with the reverse fixture set on June 4 next year. With the internal strife in Syria, the reverse fixture will be played in a neutral venue, a scenario that Cooper welcomed.
Cooper said he has named 39 players for selection for the first match against Syria. And while Neil Etheridge has ruled himself out of the first two matches, including against Guam on Sept. 10, Cooper said the team still has “some serious depth at the goalkeeping position”.
Michael Falkesgaard of Thai Premier League side Bangkok United will likely start in place of Etheridge with Patrick Deyto of Suphanburi backing him up. “We’re really blessed in that position,” Cooper said.
“Michael is really good with his feet and Patrick has been a revelation at Suphanburi. I’m glad Patrick has taken a step up in terms of the level of competition he’s playing in right now.”
Cooper plans to fly to Thailand within the next couple of weeks to check the progress of almost half of the players in the Azkals squad.
“The next step is really checking the form of our players and see who’s fit and sharp,” Cooper added. PNA