ROMY P. MARIÑAS e1473778560569 - PH Azkals much stronger than Syrian counterparts?

By the time this piece saw print, the Philippine would have made it to the 3rd round of qualification games for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, by itself an unprecedented feat because the last time around, its journey to Russia 2018 was stopped in the second round.

Or, members of the national team Azkals would have packed their bags for the trip home because they lost to Syria for the second time in the second round of preliminary clashes, thus missing one of two slots available in Doha that are offered to the top two finishers in group play.

For the Philippines to progress to Round 3, they had to win by a wide margin against the Syrians, who a few days ago spoiled China’s bid to at least end up second in the group by beating the mainlanders, 2-1.

At this writing, the Azkals and their Chinese counterparts are in joint second place, with Syria maintaining a spotless record by winning two other previous encounters with Guam and the Maldives.

Although the Philippines and China each have 7 points, the Chinese tote a superior goal difference, and they would sail through the next stage of qualifying if the Azkals blew last night’s tussle at the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.

Off the pitch, the Azkals should take heart from the Chinese losing their Italian coach, Marcello Lippi, who this week quit evidently because of the stinging loss to Syria.

To add apparent insult to injury, the 71-year-old Lippi, in a news conference castigated his wards and praised the Philippine Azkals.

“We could beat weaker opponents like Maldives and Guam, but when we encountered stronger teams like the Philipines and Syria, we could not play our own football,” he was quoted by Xinhua news agency.

At Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City last week, the China-Philippines game in the two countries’ group ended in a scoreless draw, a result that apparently Lippi had not expected from a Southeast Asian team ranked by FIFA much, much lower than the visitors (127th vs 68th).

We are not going to town over the World Cup-winning Italian leaving his reportedly $25 million-a-year job, we just want Stephan Shrock and company to seize that, well, window of opportunity that was opened by Lippi’s kind words for the Philippine national team.

The best that Shrock and the rest of the Azkals could do was to win the Dubai game, and convincingly at that, in order to prove that they deserved the tribute of sorts from the Italian coach.

Yes, of the two “stronger” teams that Lippi named, the Philippines should strive to be the much stronger one.

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