Azkals' Etheridge eyes 2015 Asian Cup
LONDON – It is only midway through 2012, but the Philippine Azkals' first-choice goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is already eyeing the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
Etheridge, who will miss the Azkals' upcoming friendly against Malaysia on June 1 because of a suspension, believes the Philippine national men’s football team has what it takes to make the qualification stages next year.
"A few years ago, this was something we’d never even thought of, but the top 20 teams in Asia go through the qualifying. We're ranked No. 22 (in Asia), so we only really need two places to step up in that league, which will be a massive, massive achievement," Etheridge said.
"I'm quite confident. The progression that we've made over the last two or three years has been massive. We keep progressing, we keep proving people wrong, we keep showing people what he can do," he added.
The Azkals, currently ranked 148th in the overall FIFA world rankings, will play friendlies against Malaysia (153rd) on June 1, Indonesia (151st) on June 5 and Guam (194th) on June 12.
The Philippines and Malaysia last played each other in February, in a match that ended in a 1-1 draw after the Malaysia Tigers snatched an equalizer at the death.
Aside from Etheridge, the Philippines will also miss Phil and James Younghusband for the upcoming game against Malaysia, with the brothers citing previous commitments.
Despite the loss in personnel, Etheridge is confident there is enough quality and depth in the squad to put up a good challenge against the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup champions.
"This time around, we've got a few new additions to the team, which will be a massive help for us," Etheridge said.
"Unfortunately, I won't be there, which is very frustrating, but at the same time we look to go to their place, their home stadium and do the best we can."
According to Azkals coach Michael Weiss, the Azkals' line-up against Malaysia will be boosted by the inclusion of four Filipino-Germans, who missed out on the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup – midfielders Stephan Schröck and Manny Ott, striker Denis Wolf and goalkeeper Roland Müller.
Weiss has also selected uncapped Patrick Deyto, who he describes as a "very promising" homegrown keeper who plays in the United Football League for Green Archers United Globe.
Even without these players, the Azkals still managed to secure their highest ever finish in the AFC Challenge Cup last March, and this gives Etheridge reason to feel optimistic about the future.
"In the Challenge Cup, we didn't have our strongest team, but yet we were still able to create great performances and get third place. We should've made it to the final," he said.
No room for complacency
The results of the upcoming friendlies will affect the Philippines' FIFA ranking. Although the three teams are currently ranked below the Azkals, Etheridge is careful not to underestimate them.
"Indonesia knocked us out of the Southeast Asian Cup in 2008, and they're a very strong team," Etheridge said. "They'll have to come to our place on June 5. The crowd in Manila is great, and they'll definitely find it hard."
"We'll make it harder for them and hopefully get a good result. We'll take every game seriously and professionally," he added.
The Philippines has yet to compete in the AFC Asian Cup, but if the Azkals do make it to the 2015 tournament, they’ll join powerhouses Australia (21st), Japan (30th), South Korea (31st) and North Korea (86th) who have already qualified.
The Asian Cup will feature 16 teams, 11 of which will be determined by the qualification matches. The top 20 Asian teams will enter the qualification stage, which begins in February 2013. The final qualifier is scheduled for March 2014.
Thailand and Turkmenistan currently hold the 20th and 21st spots in the FIFA Asian Rankings.
The winner of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup will claim an automatic place into the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/sports/05/22/12/azkals-etheridge-eyes-2015-asian-cup?