The 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign of the Philippine Azkals is about to begin as they face Syria at home in Bacolod on September 5, 2019.
However, the assignment facing coach Scott Cooper’s men is a tricky and dangerous one as although Syria will be heading as visitors into the crucial fixture, bringing a recent run of unfavorable results, the squad also known as The Eagles of Qasioun (which denotes the mountain near Damascus) are still a formidable squad for the Filipino team that is just beginning to hit its stride in the international football scene.
In the three times that Syria and the Philippines have faced each other (once in 1984 and twice in 2001), the Western Asians were the ones who ended up victorious.
Here are a few points, both good and bad, in relation to the Philippine Azkals regarding the dangerous Syrian national team.
The Good (What the Azkals can exploit)
Syria, with its current political issues as a nation, has affected the national team in terms of maintaining its previously lofty status as a footballing force in Asia.
Due to internal conflicts at home, Syria – for almost a decade now – played all of its designated “home” matches in neutral overseas venues.
The lack of a home-base eventually took its toll on the team in both preparation and results as The Eagles were only able to muster two wins in the year 2019 (in March 23 and July 8 respectively).
To further emphasize Syria’s downturn in terms of form, it wasn’t able to register a win in its most recent campaign which is the 2019 West Asian Football Federation Championship finishing with two draws and two losses putting the team in last place in Group A.
Leaky defense, in several instances, and a frontline that lacks firepower were the main issues that the Syrian side has had that has contributed to such unfavorable conclusions.
Syria’s recent, historically uncharacteristically poor form, is something that the Philippine Azkals could take note of and exploit, but these are just very minor points as we move to the threats and strengths that Syria possesses.
The Bad (What the Azkals should be wary of)
Although Syria is currently in the midst of a seemingly lackluster state in international football as already mentioned above, there are several points as to why this team is still very much a formidable force and most possibly a daunting task for the Philippine team to face in its bid to kickstart its World Cup qualification campaign on a high.
First and foremost, the most obvious, is the ranking of both squads. Syria is currently 87th (as of this writing) in the FIFA Ranking. The Philippines, meanwhile, sits further down at 126th. In the Football Elo ratings (which is a more realistic system in this writer’s opinion), Syria stands at 96th with the Azkals at 174th. Such a discrepancy, even on paper, puts the Azkals as underdogs.
Second, even if Syria is experiencing a low point (relative to its usual footballing standards) with its dismal run of results, it is important to consider that they are situated in West Asia, which is a very strong and competitive region in the Asian Football Confederation where several continental powerhouses (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) and dark horses (Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, UAE) are included. Such a dip in form and performance (due to understandable factors that the likes of Syria is experiencing) are punished severely results-wise.
Third, with their dismal run hounding them, Syria is motivated to overturn such a streak and head coach Fajr Ibrahim’s men are preparing well for the match against the Philippines in order to seize a monumental away win and turn their fortunes for the better in the best possible situation which is the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Such are just some of the reasons why Syria should not be take lightly and all the more that the Azkals should be wary and on-guard against this team.
Syria’s possible key players
FIRAS AL-KHATIB (Forward)
Despite being already 36-years of age, Al-Khatib is still a very much effective scorer both for club (Al-Salmiya) and country.
Such ability to put the ball into the back of the net front has been proven once again in the 2019 West Asian Championship when he top-scored as captain of his team with two goals.
With a rate of almost a goal in every other match (0.48), Al-Khatib is still very much a major threat if he will suit up and set foot on the pitch in Panaad on September 5.
AHMAD AL SALIH (Defender)
29-year-old center-back Ahmad Al Salih is one of the most capped players for Syria and will most likely to be in the squad against the Philippines.
A player with extensive experience in club football both domestically and abroad, Al Sahli will most likely be a key figure as one of the most dominant enforcers in the backline.
Aside from being primarily a defender, Al Sahli has the occasional penchant to score goals (mainly in set-plays) when needed.
OMAR KHARBIN (Forward)
Despite not featuring for the Western Asian Championships, Omar Kharbin might feature for Syria against the Azkals as the world cup qualifier match falls within the international break.
A player for Saudi club side Al-Hilal, but currently plays for Egyptian side Pyramids on loan, Kharbin is one of the in-form players for The Eagles of Qasioun.
Him being one of the only two players to find the back of the net in the 2019 Asian Cup proves his ability to deliver on the big stage.
OMAR AL SOMAH (Forward)
Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli’s towering striker (at 1.93 meters), Al Somah has been a prolific scorer in club football, but has yet to translate that for Syria.
If called up in the match against The Azkals, the 30-year-old’s size and ever-present threat to light it up as a target-man could pose a real problem for the Philippines.
Philippines’ key strengths
Without getting into details, here are some factors that could play in favor of the Philippine Azkals:
Philippine weather has its quirks and could play in favor of The Azkals. The home support would be very much play a factor as well.
The Azkals currently have some key players of their own especially ones that are performing well both in the domestic league and leagues abroad.
If Scott Cooper’s men can build good chemistry within, then it’s possible that they can produce an unprecedented upset against the much higher-ranked Syria.
At this point, it might be considered that Syria might be a shadow of its former self in the football world, but it cannot be denied that the West Asians have a much better track record than the Azkals.
But if the Philippine Azkals will be able to execute well come kick-off and maximize the advantages they have at home, then it is very much possible for The Azkals to get dream start to the World Cup qualifiers.
The September 5, 2019 World Cup qualifier match between the Philippine Azkals and Syria kicks off at 7:30PM in Panaad Stadium.
Photo credits: Syrian FA Facebook page