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Azkals must qualify for Asian Cup, keep Thomas Dooley in 2018

Since the turn of the decade, the Philippines have made an ever-growing impact on the game at regional level, with the country's clubs carving a name for themselves for the first time in 2017 in the AFC Cup.

As the country's profile continues to grow, here are five Philippines football wishes for 2018.

1. Qualify for the Asian Cup

The Azkals stand on the verge of qualifying for their first-ever Asian Cup finals, four years after narrowly missing out on a place in 2015.

A surprise defeat in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives to Palestine denied the country a debut in Australia.

But, with the tournament now expanded to 24 nations, the chances of the Philippines final securing that inaugural appearance have increased.

Philippines striker Phil Younghusband
Philippines have failed to win their last two qualifiers for the 2019 Asian Cup.

They've already missed several opportunities to seal their spot after draws against Yemen and Nepal. But another point against Tajikistan in Bacolod on March 27 will take them into the draw when it is made in the United Arab Emirates in late April.

2. Reach the Suzuki Cup final

The ASEAN competition is where the Philippines announced their arrival on the international stage back in Vietnam in 2010 when they sprung a surprise to defeat the hosts before being eliminated in the semifinals by Indonesia.

Two further semifinal appearances followed in 2012 and 2014 before expectations were raised when they co-hosted the 2016 edition.

However, a failure to advance to the knockout phase was seen as a setback, admittedly from a difficult group that featured both eventual finalists Thailand and Indonesia, plus four-time winners Singapore.

Philippines' Misagh Bahadoran of Philippines, tackled by Fachruddin Wahyudi Aryanto and Zullham Malik Zamrun of Indonesia
Philippines co-hosted the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup but weren't able to advance from a tough group.

However, if the Philippines are to seriously consider themselves both a regional power and a nation capable of bridging the gap that exists between themselves and the continent's leading countries in the longer term, regional success on a consistent basis is a must. A solid run to the final of the Suzuki Cup later in the year would be key to that.

3. Improve player development

Much of the success of the Azkals has hinged on the way in which the overseas-born players drafted into the squad have meshed with the locally raised Philippines players.

But for longer term success there is a pressing need for the country to further improve the standard of youth development.

Tellingly, the Philippines have not qualified for any AFC U23 Championship, AFC U19 Championship or AFC U16 Championship, leaving them well adrift in the development stakes of Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. That needs to change.

4. That Filipino clubs go further in the AFC Cup

Global Cebu and Ceres-Negros both won their groups in the 2017 AFC Cup before Ceres-Negros saw off Johor Darul Ta'zim and Home United to advance to the Inter Zonal final, where they were outclassed by Tajikistan's Istiklol.

That defeat showed the gulf that still exists between the leading clubs from the United Football League and the stronger nations around Asia. That means it is unlikely Ceres will go far in the preliminary rounds of the 2018 AFC Champions League and will end up back in the AFC Cup.

But if the lessons are learned, particularly in relation to playing games away from home under trying circumstances, then progress can be made in the competition after an impressive 2017.

Philippines coach Thomas Dooley
German-American Thomas Dooley has coached the Philippines national team since 2014.

5. Extend Thomas Dooley's contract

Should the Azkals confirm their place at the finals of the Asian Cup when they play their final qualifying match in late March, the pressure will be on to extend coach Thomas Dooley's contract for at least another year.

The German-born former United States international defender has brought discipline and organisation to the set up. He was responsible for steering the country to their best result in recent memory when they defeated North Korea in AFC World Cup qualifying in 2016.

The World Cup centre half's contract expires later this year after being given a two-year contract in late 2016.

He needs to be tied down long term to ensure stability going into Suzuki Cup later in the year and the Asian Cup at the start of 2019.

Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch


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