Into the homestretch: A look at the Azkals' last WCQ matches

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By Kevin Estrada

The Philippines will wrap up its World Cup Qualifying Campaign at the end of March with the Azkals set to play Uzbekistan away on Maundy Thursday and North Korea at home in Rizal two days after Easter.

The fixtures will be the first for the year, the second consecutive time that the year-opening matches happened on the month of March.

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Although the Azkals' road to Russia has been shut down by Yemen last November, a lot is still at stake for the Asian Cup qualification in which Thomas Dooley said the more realistic one.

With only a point ahead of fourth placed Bahrain in Group H, the Azkals need a to get the points against the top 2 of the group to have some separation against their Gulf rivals, who they will play Yemen (home) and Uzbekistan (away) to end their campaign in the second round.

Why? Because the group third placers are now safe into the third round of the Asian Cup qualifying, while finishing fourth means complications, for the Azkals might end up playing a playoff just to get to Round 3. Complicated, isn't it?

And in the midst of a four-match winless run, the Azkals wish that their fortunes this year will change, given that they were given a big boost when the AFF decided to gave us the deserved hosting rights for the subcontinental championship.

MARCH 24: Uzbekistan vs Philippines
Bunyodkor Stadium, Tashkent
9PM, Manila Time

Surely, the Azkals are going for revenge of some sorts against the former Soviet nation who inflicted the worst home loss in recent memory six months ago, with the proudly boasted 3-4-3 formation was busted in the first fifteen seconds of the match in a beatdown in Bocaue.

If they were get beaten at home with only a quarter of the PSS, expect a different thing this time, with a full house of 34,000 strong in Uzbek colors rocking this stadium which is only six kilometers away from their usual home ground.

And it's not just an ordinary Uzbekistan that we see here, it's a red-hot side that blasted their way to the top 2 of Group H, winning five straight WCQ matches since Samvel Babayan took over from the disgraced Mirjalol Qosimov, and also came from a 2-0 win over Lebanon in a Dubai friendly, which makes it six wins on the trot for them.

TD will have to make the most of his 19 men who made the trip out of the 35 who were called up to the training camp, with the team severely decimated by injuries (Palla, Younghusband, Schrock), suspensions (Bahadoran and Ott) and retirements (Lucena and Mulders). Three of them are set to make their international debuts for the country: Kaya's Dominic Del Rosario, Stallion's Ashley Flores and Loyola's Jorel Aristorenas.

The team hopes that there will not be a repeat of a 1-5 setback at the hands of the Central Asians when they will give the hosts a surprise.

MARCH 29: Philippines vs North Korea
Rizal Memorial, Manila
8PM, Manila Time

The last match of the qualifying cycle is a reverse fixture of the shocking draw they made in Pyongyang, defying a strong 55,000 well-choreographed supporters in the Hermit Kingdom.

Hopefully, those who are injured can now fit to play, as well as welcoming back Manny Ott and Misagh Bahadoran from their suspension. Roland Muller is now in Manila albeit missed the Uzbekistan fixture.

With the secretive nation not having any competitive match since Nov. 17, 2015, it is definitely hard to scout them, making them the most unpredictable side in the history of international football.

All is not lost for the team as they will have the crowd at Rizal to back them up, with the no less than the PFF are hoping for a sell out in which they failed to do in the first three home matches.

Follow him on Twitter: @KevinLEstrada