The Azkals have three friendlies in June, none tougher than Friday's clash in Kuala Lumpur against the Suzuki Cup champs, Malaysia.
The home squad, nicknamed the Malayan Tigers, will host the Philippines in Kuala Lumpur for the fifth time. The Azkals have lost all four previous meetings in Malaysia, the closest call being a 1-0 loss in 1972. In their last meeting in Malaysia, at the 2004 Tiger Cup, the home team ran out 4-1 winners, with our only goal a late consolation from Chad Gould.
The teams will be reacquainted for the second time this year after last February's 1-1 draw at Rizal Memorial Stadium. There is a 50-50 chance that the teams will duke it out again in the Suzuki Cup in November, since there will be a draw to determine if the Philippines plays its group games in Thailand or Malaysia.
For once, the Philippines is the higher-ranked team, at 148 in the latest FIFA rankings, as opposed to Malaysia's 153.
After Friday's match, the Philippines entertains Indonesia at the Rizal Memorial then plays host to Guam at Bacolod's Panaad stadium on June 12.
The big news is that James and Phil Younghusband can't disentangle themselves from a previous commitment and will miss the Malaysia match. I'll see the glass half-full and be glad to evaluate other players.
Denis Wolf is back, looking to score against Malaysia again. We will likely see the debut of the blisteringly quick Patrick Reichelt, the Fil-German who now plays in the UFL for Global FC. Look for him up top or on the right wing in place of James Younghusband. Angel Guirado is a likely starter at forward or attacking mid. Ian Araneta came on late to score a fine equalizer for the Azkals last Sunday versus Global. No one will be surprised to see him come in late as an impact sub.
Neil Etheridge will also miss the match. The Asian Football Confederation handed him another suspension for his red card against Turkmenistan in the Challenge Cup. He served a one-match ban for that in the third place game but due to certain rules that to be honest, mystify me, he got banned again for an additional match. The Azkals' loss is ABS-CBN's gain, and he'll be beside me as the match analyst with Darren Hartmann.
Enter the very capable Roland Muller between the sticks, getting his first full International cap since the 2011 Long Teng Cup. It's a shame that Patrick Deyto, Green Archer's young, towering keeper, didn't make the cut. It would have been great to give him a taste of international play. He was in the San Carlos camp and has helped keep the Archers out of relegation danger this year with a string of saves.
Last February Rajagopal started Mohammad Farizal Marlias in goal, only letting in first-choice keeper Khairul Fahmi bin Chemat on with about 10 minutes to go. Weiss could have done the same, starting Muller then giving Deyto a run-out. But instead veteran Ed Sacapano will be the backup keeper.
Stefan Schrock will wear the Azkals jersey for the first time since last year. Schrock led Greuther Furth to promotion to the Bundesliga, but weeks before that achievement guaranteed his spot there by winning a contract with Bundesliga mid-table club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. Schrocky is best known for his thunderous goal against Kuwait, but his best skill is his visionary passing. Schrock will be the player on the park who plays at the highest level of Football. It will likely show.
Paul Mulders, who fought jet lag to battle for the Philippines in the Challenge Cup, is also suiting up.
Fans of Freddy Gonzales will be disappointed. Work commitments kept the 34-year old out of camp and he wasn't picked.
The defense will be bolstered by veteran Rob Gier who will anchor the back four with Jason Sabio. Several Azkals have told me that Gier's tactical knowledge is crucial, and he provides leadership and experience. I think he should wear the captain's armband and could coach this team one day.
You can pencil in Carli de Murga at right back. His confidence is high after scoring last weekend versus his club team, Global. Lexton Moy told me that of all the players in the Bacolod game, Roxy Dorlas was the most impressive. The Fil-Dutchman Meralco defender was at left back for 90 minutes on consecutive days versus Ceres and Global last weekend. He just might earn his first cap in years.
Juani Guirado is versatile and can play in the back four or play in the midfield.
Malaysia will, once again, go with a young squad. Mohammad Badri Mohammad Radzi turns 30 the day after the game. Apart from three other players, the rest of the squad is 26 or younger.
Kunanlan Subramanian, a left winger, was a pest against the Azkals last February and is listed for this match. Another threat is the pacey Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, who set up a goal in Malaysia's last International match, a 6-love thrashing of Sri Lanka last April. He stormed down the right flank and unspooled a pinpoint cross that was smashed home.
Safee Sali, with 18 goals in 37 appearances for Malaysia, will be a threat. He is the only player on the Malaysian squad not playing club football in his home country. The 28-year old plies his trade for Pelita Jaya in the lucrative Indonesian league. The Azkals held him in check last February. Can they do it again?
Shakir Ali, who equalized in stoppage time that day, is also good to go.
Watch out for 21-year-old Wan Zack Haikal Wan Noor. The youngster struck twice against the Lankans. Noor is member of the Harimau Muda, or "Young Tigers," Malaysia's under-23 national team.
In that game Ahmad Hazman Bakri, another Harimau Muda, scored a hat trick. Fortunately for us he hasn't been included in Dato Krishnasamy Rajagopal's lineup. Perhaps he is injured? Or maybe Rajagopal has so many players to choose from that he wants to try as many as possible during FIFA's friendlies window.
International friendlies are nice for jacking up those FIFA world rankings, but in reality they are often used as laboratories to test young players. I hope the Azkals see this match and the other two June games in the same light. We need to subject our young blood to the crucible of International competition to determine who is up for the fight in November's Suzuki Cup.
OJ Clarino, a surprise inclusion from Stallion, is uncapped and could get in a few minutes. Jeffrey Christaens is also in the mix. The Filipino-Belgian was impressive in last year's Long Teng Cup and the SEA Games.
For Malaysia this will just be an appetizer for a two-legged friendly jihad versus bitter rival Singapore. On June 8 the Tigers take on the Lions in Jalan Besar in Singapore, then play host at the cavernous Bukit Jalil stadium on June 12. (Bukit Jalil is finishing up renovations, which is why the Azkals play Malaysia in the older Shah Alam Stadium.) There is no love lost between these two teams as they battle it out for bragging rights across the Johor Strait. I wouldn't be surprised if Malaysia is looking ahead beyond this Friday's match to the Singapore series.
When these teams last met, it was an open, entertaining encounter with the Philippines playing expansive, attacking Football. On hostile ground, it might be a different story, with the Azkals perhaps favoring a more compact defense and a counter-attacking mindset. Schrock and Mulders will be key in the midfield to feed Wolf and Angel Guirado on top.
It should be a hard-fought match on Friday, but the home team will be the favorite. Let's hope to silence the crowd and kick off this season of friendlies on a high note.
MY PROJECTED STARTING ELEVEN
Wolf A. Guirado
Caligdong Mulders Schrock Reichelt
Dorlas Sabio Gier DeMurga