By Kabayan Jerome Lagunzad

Photo: Facebook

PRIZED goalkeeper Neil Etheridge won’t be around, but the Philippine Azkals remain formidable and dangerous in the presence of familiar figures and fresh faces, as they embark on their toughest challenge yet in the month-long AFC Asian Cup, at the United Arab Emirates.

The Azkals, ranked 116th in the world, are determined to make some noise in their maiden appearance in the continental showpiece as they enlisted a 23-strong lineup bannered by skillful striker Phil Younghusband and Fil-German sparkplug Stephan Schrock.

However, Etheridge, arguably the Azkals’ biggest star who is fast emerging as one of the top goalies in the English Premier League, has been left out in the cold since he could only play for the Azkals’ opener against world power South Korea on January 7, 2019, owing to his commitment with club team Cardiff City.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Etheridge told the Philippine Daily Inquirer recently. “As people know, I’ve worked so hard to be playing every week in the Premier League. After a long discussion with people involved, it would be unfair for me to take a spot of another player.”

Etheridge, with 62 international caps, so far, and is considered as one of the catalysts in the Azkals’ resurgence in the past few years, could only wish nothing but the best for his teammates.

“It’s a fantastic competition, and a competition that everyone in Philippine football (has) worked hard to be a part of,” he added. “And, unfortunately, the Asian Cup falls in January which is a frustration for players like myself when we’re still in season. I don’t believe this will be the final time that we reach the Asian Cup and in the future when situations change, I hope to be a part of it.”

Expected to take the starting spot of Etheridge is Fil-Danish goalie Michael Falkesgaard, who is making a steady recovery from an injury he suffered in the AFF Suzuki Cup semis. Backing him up are Nathaniel Ace Villanueva and Kevin Ray Hansen.

Also tapped by new Azkals mentor, Swedish Sven Goran Eriksson, is Younghusband’s younger brother James who has 100 caps. Veteran defender Paul Mulders is the oldest player in the side at 37 years old while midfielder Patrick Strauss is the youngest at 22.

Considered as the surprise inclusion was Miguel Tanton, one of the top midfielders in the Philippines Football League who signed with Ceres-Negros recently but was not part of any of the Azkals squads in the buildup to the AFC tourney. 

Set to play as defenders are Carli de Murga, Stephan Palla, Alvaro Silva, Daiduke Sato, Adum Tull and Luke Woodland. Playing in the midfield are Kevin Ingreso, Manuel Ott, Mike Ott and John Patrick Strauss.

Patrick Reichelt and Javier Patino will join Phil Younghusband upfront together with Jovin Bedic, Curt Dizon and Iain Ramsay.

“I think we have formed a great group of players ready to represent the country in our biggest tournament yet,” said long-time Azkals manager Dan Palami.

The Azkals will open their campaign in Group C against the fancied Koreans on Monday, January 7, at Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. Then they take on China on Jan. 11, 2019, at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi and Kyrgyzstan on Jan. 16, also at Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.

“For sure, China and Korea are big names,” said Schrock in an earlier interview with that which he considers as the top teams. “Particularly Korea. I played against Son Heung-min when he was in Hamburg and a few of the other players when they were at Augsburg and Mainz. They bring everything. Technically and tactically they are on an extremely high level not only in Asia but world football.”

The Azkals, however, are undaunted, stressed Schrock. “But they should be concerned about us, as we have nothing to lose. We will be the underdog, for sure, and not many people are betting on us, but we’re not going to make up the numbers. We are fully embracing this unrealistic statement we’re giving to Asia,” he added.