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Choosing a Hypothetical Azkals First Team for the Challenge Cup

Yesterday, when I first saw the Philippines’ official line-up for the 2014 AFC Challenge up courtesy of the inevitable Facebook link, my immediate reaction was that of satisfaction and quiet confidence.

Time was when an Azkals team would practically select itself on the basis of reputation alone. That is not the case anymore with the current Challenge Cup squad.

Thomas Dooley has been bold in his team selections for the recent friendly internationals. So thus, he has built for himself a squad that not only has depth but is also finely balanced in terms of youth, experience and options.

There will be selection headaches, of course; but that is always a good thing from a coaching standpoint. The fact that Dooley is new means that he has no baggage.

While I will stand by whatever decisions on team selection that Dooley will ultimately make, and that is because he has done most things right so far, if just to highlight the team’s depth I will exercise my armchair expert’s right to make my own team selection.
Ideally, squad and team selection ought to be based on current club form. We have a long way to go yet before we can get to that point.

Thus, the real conundrum for Dooley will be whether to select Europe-based players who may be arguably better but have not been involved in regular first team action; or stick with home-based players who have been involved week in and week out in the UFL.

Selection will have to be based, therefore, on what the players themselves show Dooley in the pre-tournament training camp; and the latter has the stature to make selections that serve the team rather than stroke individual egos.

My personal belief is that, of the European contingent, only Stephan Schröck deserves an automatic place in the starting line-up, although where to play him is also food for thought if I understand it right that he is often selected as rightback by Eintracht Frankfurt.

While I will stand by whatever decisions on team selection that Dooley will ultimately make, and that is because he has done most things right so far, if just to highlight the team’s depth I will exercise my armchair expert’s right to make my own team selection.

Goalkeeper: Neil Etheridge

This is one position in which I feel we are spoilt for riches; and choosing one over the other two will not really impact how the rest of the team plays. Etheridge gets the nod because of his height and reach along with his long kick upfield; albeit Dooley will be well aware that he is coming off a lengthy spell out because of injury.

Of concern also will be Etheridge’s occasional petulance, such as that which reduced him to the role of Twitter pundit in the 2012 Challenge Cup in Nepal. It will serve him well to understand that both Roland Müller and Patrick Deyto can more than adequately step in for him.

Rightback: Simone Rota

If we had more options going forward, I would stick Schröck here on the premise that this is where Eintracht plays him. We do have options at the back. Rota gets the nod because he has been quietly efficient in that role in the last three internationals. This and the fact that Carli de Murga has only recently recovered from injury. If I am being honest, while de Murga is a terrific crosser of the ball, his languid gait used to petrify me. Rota it will have to be.

Centerbacks: Juani Guirado and Robert Gier

Jerry Lucena showed that he could step down to the backline in the recent international against Malaysia in Cebu; but the Guirado-Gier partnership is selected for the two players’ familiarity with one another and, therefore, stability.

Leftback: Dennis Cagara

I had a long thought about this. Truth be told, Cagara reminds me a lot of Liverpool’s Glen Johnson in that he arguably does better work in the attacking half of the field. It used to annoy me so much whenever Cagara got caught stranded upfield.

In contrast, the Fil-Samurai Daisuke Sato has shown great maturity for his 19 years and chooses his moments going forward. I am also inclined to believe that his left foot is more cultured than Cagara’s, but the latter gets the nod because of his greater physique and experience.

Right Midfield: James Younghusband

Another right proper conundrum, this one! I consider Younghusband among the best crossers of the ball in the land. But if we are all being honest, then we would all have noticed that good ole Jimmy has looked a tad off the pace of late. I had a long thought about Paul Mulders, but none of us has really seen him recently. Younghusband it will have to be; but what a luxury to have a Paul Mulders waiting on the bench!

Ditto Patrick Reichelt. After the Malaysia friendly, Dooley would doubtless have come to the conclusion that Reichelt is not really a striking option.

Central Midfield: Jerry Lucena and Martin Steuble

Lucena, of course, goes straight into the holding role. The sleepy-eyed Fil-Danish is arguably the most underrated player in the squad, as he does most of his work simply but efficiently, with the calmness of experience. He is an excellent player to have protecting the backline.

Steuble gets the creative midfield role because he is that linking player that former coach Michael Weiss did not have. Mulders, to a limited extent, can also play this role. Steuble’s vision, though, is better. He can come down to the backline to pick up the ball, go square if necessary or burst forward to poach goals as we all saw recently against Nepal.

In the Weiss era, many fans were hankering about a more patient approach; and I had written before that we did not have the player who could make this happen. Steuble is the answer to the fans’ prayers.

Left Midfield: Stephan Schröck

And who else? This was where Weiss used him to great effect before and where he also did most of his good work in the recent Azerbaijan friendly. There is an occasional tendency to be over-elaborate, something that doubtless he is not allowed in the Bündesliga. Schröckie is still a match-winner who is undeniably the shining jewel in the crown of the Azkals.

Strikers: Philip Younghusband and Ruben Doctora Jr.

Assuming, of course, the Dooley will opt to play with two upfront. Younghusband has not had the best of starts in the Dooley era, having been injured or overeager to score when selected. He is still, by far, the best potential source of goals for the Azkals once he gets into his groove.

Doctora should not be far behind; and all he really needs is a run of games in the side. His lack of stature meant that Malaysia dominated him in Cebu. Playing alongside a bigger striker means that he will feed off the scraps, the sort of player central defenders abhor because he plays at speed along the carpet.

The Bench

Now go look at the bench. Chris Greatwich, Jason de Jong, OJ Porteria, Misagh Bahadoran. Among others. I am a happy man! Bring on the Challenge Cup!

The Full Squad

Goalkeepers: Patrick Deyto (Green Archers United), Neil Etheridge (Fulham FC), Roland Müller (Servette FC)

Defenders: Dennis Cagara (Lyngby Boldklub), Robert Gier (Ascot United), Juan Luis Guirado (Ceres-La Salle FC), Carlos de Murga (Ceres-La Salle FC), Anton del Rosario (Kaya FC), Simone Rota (Stallion FC), Daisuke Sato (Gobal FC)

Midfielders: Christopher Greatwich (Kaya FC), Jason de Jong (Global FC), Jerry Lucena (Esbjerg fB), Paul Mulders (SC Cambuur), Jose Elmer Porteria (Kaya FC), Patrick Reichelt (Ceres-La Salle FC), Stephan Schröck (Eintracht Frankfurt), Martin Steuble (FC Wil 1900), James Younghusband (Loyola Meralco Sparks)

Strikers: Misagh Bahadoran (Global FC), Nathaniel Burkey (Kaya FC), Ruben Doctora (Stallion FC), Philip Younghusband (Loyola Meralco Sparks)

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