Myanmar, an Asian football powerhouse in the 1960s and ’70s which has fallen by the wayside even in the Southeasy Asian level in recent years, collides with the Azkals at 3:30 p.m. (5 p.m. in Manila).
The Philippines and Myanmar, which is expected to be backed by 20,000 supporters, have played each other three times in the past seven years—all in the AFC Suzuki Cup—with the Burmese winning once in 2004 and the Filipinos forcing scoreless draws in the last two.
Their last meeting ended in a tie in Nam Dinh, Vietnam, last December, a result that propelled the Azkals to an unprecedented semifinal appearance in the AFF Suzuki Cup, and booted the Burmese out of contention.
A win will not only put the Azkals closer to the Challenge Cup main tournament next year, but also temporarily put to rest doubts that the Filipinos have at least caught up with or surpassed Burma’s level.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” said skipper Aly Borromeo. “I heard there’s going to be 20,000 fans there.
“The fact that they have to qualify now for the Suzuki Cup because of us is a big blow to them and they want to make a statement.”
The Azkals face Palestine on Wednesday and Bangladesh on Friday for their final group match in the event participated in by emerging football nations in Asia.
They need at least two wins to secure a slot in next year’s final tournament, which will dangle one spot to the 2015 Asian Cup, the continent’s centerpiece event, in Australia.
The Filipinos are expected to revert to a conservative approach and wait to catch the Burmese side on the counter-attack.
German coach Hans Michael Weiss is expected to make significant changes to the squad that lost to Mongolia, 1-2, in Ulan Bator last week with goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and defender Rob Gier returning to the squad.
Talks are rife that Borromeo, who has played centerback in the past, will slip into a defensive midfield to allow new recruit Angel Aldeguer Guirado to freely roam as the attacking midfielder.
Anton del Rosario will move from rightback to cover Borromeo’s position at the center, while Roel Gener is expected to switch to rightback, playing behind James Younghusband.
Ray Jonsson, whom Weiss considered as the standout performer for the Azkals against Mongolia, will return to his leftback spot, behind Chieffy Caligdong. Simon Greatwich could play the other midfield spot for a 4-5-1 formation, leaving Ian Araneta alone up top.
Phil Younghusband, the country’s top scorer, will miss the group stage because of a pulled hamstring he sustained against Mongolia.
“I think we want to take a precautionary approach,” said Borromeo. “It’s a safer approach not defensive. On paper, we’re still strong.”
Caligdong said the Azkals remain underdogs in the clash despite ranking 10 places higher than Myanmar in the Fifa rankings.
“We’re still the underdogs here, but we can show that what happened in the Suzuki Cup wasn’t a fluke,” Caligdong said in Filipino.
For Del Rosario, playing in a hostile environment, should only add to the Azkals’ motivation.
“We’ve proven in the past that we can play in front of hostile crowds and this will not be different against Myanmar,” said Del Rosario, noting the 2-nil win against Vietnam in Hanoi.
Myanmar’s fiery coach Milan Zivadinovic is confident that the home side can capitalize on the home crowd to beat the Azkals.
“We expect to advance,” the controversial Serbian mentor who once lost a case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport and was forced to pay $125,000 for breaching his contract when he was hired as Iraq coach seven years ago.
Zivadinovic is only on his third month as coach of the national side, but believes he has transformed Myanmar into an even stronger force in the Asian level.
“We have a strong, disciplined team and we can beat teams here,” said Zivadinovic.