FOOTBALL: Manila- AFC Asian Cup: Azkals seek qualification in Nepal Can attitude conquer altitude? Philippines coach Thomas Dooley sure hopes so

A NEW FACE. Paolo Salenga (#19), a new call up to the national team from Global Cebu FC, is shown here playing against Stallion Laguna FC. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

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MANILA, Philippines – In their biggest match of the year, the Philippine Azkals face Nepal on Tuesday, November 14, 4:15 pm Philippine time, in a Group F clash in AFC Asian Cup qualifying. The venue is the ANFA Complex nestled in the rarefied air of Kathmandu, Nepal, 1400 meters above sea level.

ABS-CBN S+A will air the game live on both their SD and HD channels, and will also livestream the match.

The mission is simple for coach Thomas Dooley and his charges: win and a slot in the final stage of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the UAE is guaranteed. A draw or a loss, and the final qualifying game, on March 29 2018 at home versus Tajikistan, becomes key to progression.

The Azkals have already defeated Nepal in this group, downing them 4-1 last March in Rizal Memorial. Dooley also oversaw a pair of 3-0 friendly wins against the Himalayans in 2014, both in Doha, Qatar.

Nepal are 60 places adrift of us in the FIFA rankings at 176. They have a solitary point in this qualifying campaign, a home 0-0 draw against Yemen. On paper they should be a pushover.

But this match is at altitude, and that makes all the difference. Dooley should know. He has had a firsthand experience of thin-air football as a player.

The German-born American coach recounted a game he played for the USA on July 25, 1993 in Mexico City’s fabled Azteca Stadium. The Azteca is a seething, inhospitable cauldron of noise for away teams. The game was the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final, the top prize for nations in North and Central America plus the Caribbean.

Mexico City sits 2,200 meters above sea level, fully 800 meters higher than Kathmandu.

Mexican Nacho Ambriz began the scoring in the 11th minute with a rocket of a free kick from over 30 yards out, igniting the crowd of over 100,000 Mexican supporters. You can see it 50 seconds into this video.

“One thing about playing in a high altitude is that the ball travels faster in the thin air,” explains the coach.

“The ball was in the net even before our goalkeeper, Tony Meola, had his hands up.”

Mexico went on to win 4-0, and as Dooley recounts, the visitors really never had a chance.

“After 20 minutes, we were done,” says the former centerback. “We couldn’t run, and we couldn’t breathe.”

“The key to playing in a high altitude is acclimatizing for 3 weeks. Then you’ll be 100% ready,” adds Dooley.

“Two weeks is okay, if you gradually increase the load in the training. One week is better than two days preparation, but it’s not the same.”

4 years later the Americans would return to Azteca for a World Cup qualifier against their archrivals. This time the team prepared with a two-and-a-half week long camp in Big Bear, California, 2,058 meters above sea level.

The camp worked. Despite an early red card, the Yanks hang on for a goalless draw, and qualified for the 1998 World Cup.

Fast forward to 2017 and Dooley’s current team. How much preparation time in Nepal do the Azkals have? Exactly one week. They flew out of Manila last Tuesday, November 7, at midnight for Abu Dhabi, then flew back east to Kathmandu.

There was a plan to have the team acclimatize in Baguio before traveling but that was scotched, likely because of PFL commitments. Incidentally, at 1,540 meters up, Baguio is actually higher than Kathmandu.

At least most of the big-name Azkals are slated to play. Neil Etheridge has flown in from Wales, where he plays for Cardiff City in the second tier of English football. We also have Daisuke Sato coming in from Denmark and Mike Ott from Thailand. Mike’s brother Manny is out with a knee injury.

The list of PFL players includes the Younghusband brothers from Davao, Hikaru Minegishi and Dennis Villanueva from Global, Iain Ramsay, Kevin Ingreso and Junior Muñoz from Ceres, Curt Dizon from FC Meralco Manila, and Sean Kane from JPV Marikina. Returning to the team are Cebu’s Misagh Bahadoran, who was injured during the last window, Kaya’s Marwin Angeles, and Stallion midfielder Fitch Arboleda.

I saw Bahadoran in Global’s last game before this FIFA window, 4-3 victory over Stallion Laguna last week. Bahadoran, playing out of position as a holding mid, didn’t quite look 100% fit, although he did play all 90 minutes. Let’s hope the striker is in better shape come Tuesday.

There are two brand-new homegrown Filipino Azkals in Nepal now, Global Cebu’s Paolo Salenga, who has been finding the net often both in the PFL and the Singapore Cup, and Ceres Negros left back Joshua Dutosme. The latter’s inclusion has raised plenty of eyebrows, since Dutosme, a University of St. La Salle product, has only been a pro since the last transfer window. It must be noted, however, that he hails from Malaybalay, Bukidnon, elevation: 622 meters above sea level.

The PFL’s top Filipino striker, Jhanjhan Melliza of Stallion, is unfortunately unavailable due to injury. Paul Mulders, who assisted Mike Ott for the late equalizer against Yemen last month, is listed in the team but is recovering from measles. It’s not clear if he can play.

As for the Yemen, they may be out of the running already, but Dooley sees no reason to take them lightly.

“This will be a difficult game. Nepal are a physical team. They can run, they will fight. They might not be as skillful as us but they can do damage.”

You might recall that Nepal had a man sent off early against us in March for an egregious handball in front of goal. But the shorthanded team did pull back a goal before halftime.

“They know they have a chance at altitude,” continues Dooley. “They can run for 90 minutes. We might be dead after 20 or 30.”

As always, the coach will rely on team spirit to carry the day, as the Azkals stand on the precipice of Asian footballing glory.

“The attitude, the enthusiasm, the excitement from the players, it has to be there.”

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH


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