Etheridge to feature for Azkals in Asian Qualifiers

Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is expected to feature for the Philippines in the opening games of the Asian Qualifiers in China PR in June as the Azkals attempt secure a place in the next round of qualifying.

The 31-year-old Birmingham City star has been a mainstay for the Philippines for over a decade and head coach Scott Cooper confirmed Etheridge would join the rest of the squad for their training camp in Doha later this month despite plans for the custodian to marry during the summer months.

“Stephan Schrock and Etheridge are the core of this team in terms of the commitment and the things they do to talk to other players,” said Cooper.

“Neil is eligible and he is wanting to come, he’s just getting his passport renewed at this moment and Neil is getting married this summer right around the middle part of that, so of course he’s going to be with us to start off with and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

The Philippines are currently level on seven points with China in Group A of the second round of Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, eight points adrift of leaders Syria. The eight group winners are assured of a place in the next phase of preliminaries for the FIFA World Cup while the four teams with the best records among the runners-up will also advance.

Cooper will take his squad to Qatar for a training camp that will begin on May 18 and will run until May 31, with the Azkals’ first game in the centralised hub in China to be played on June 3 against Guam. The Philippines then take on China on June 9 before meeting the Maldives on June 15.

“We’re looking to do the country proud,” said Cooper. “We’re not looking to just go there and take part. We’re looking for three wins.

“This will be the fifth time we’ve played China in a three-year period; there was an 8-0 (loss), then a 3-0 at the Asian Cup and then a 2-0 in China a couple of years back and a 0-0 in Bacolod. So we’re progressively showing against them that we’re doing OK.”

“But as far as us, we’ll be prepared. We’ll have plans A, B and C. We’ll have potentially the squad that we can call on and it’s a matter of how quickly – like for any national team coach – we can gel the team together.

“National teams are always changing, they’re not like club teams. They’re always changing, and especially after a year and a half and especially during a pandemic and when players are changing clubs.

“I have an idea on what we want to do, but we’re waiting on players and then we’ll see if it works and gels in Doha. Thanks goodness the (Philippine Football Federation) president and the general secretary have pulled the stops out and got us a training camp that gives us a good chance.”

June’s matches also serve as qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 and Cooper sees the training camp and the three games in Suzhou as an opportunity to improve the Azkals’ international stature.

“We don’t have excuses,” he said. “No players are saying no, we’ve got the time in Doha, we’ve beaten Maldives and Guam already away from home, we’ve tied with China here so it’s up to us and the staff now to raise the bar. That’s what we’re hoping to do with this national team, to push on.

“There’s the 2022 World Cup, the AFF Cup, the Asian Cup, 2026 World Cup. There’s a pathway and a target to achieve these things and it starts in China.”


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