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New-look Philippines clashes with fancied Iraq in Basra

TOM SAINTFIET — PHILIPPINE MEN’S NATIONAL FOOTBALL TEAM

Match Thursday(Basra International Stadium, Iraq)10 p.m. — Iraq vs Philippines(3 a.m. Friday in Manila)

DEBUTING Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet aims to harness the trademark Filipino fighting heart as new-look Philippines resumes its FIFA World Cup Qualifiers drive Thursday (early Friday in Manila) against fancied Iraq on the road in Basra.

Mr. Saintfiet looks to steer the Pinoy booters to an upset win or at least a draw against the unbeaten hosts to resuscitate their aspirations after posting only one point off a 1-1 draw with Indonesia and 0-2 loss to Vietnam in the previous window under German Michael Weiss.

The Lions of Mesopotamia, who are ranked 80 spots above the 139th Filipinos in the world rankings, are on a hot run after opening Group F with victories over Indonesia, 5-1, and Vietnam, 1-0, for pole position. The Philippines runs third behind the Vietnamese (three points on one win and one defeat).

“We don’t want to come home without any points. We want to win something there even how difficult it is,” said Mr. Saintfiet, who has assembled a team mixing youth and experience led by skipper Neil Etheridge for the 10 p.m. game at the cavernous Basra International Stadium (3 a.m. Friday in Manila).

“We never start a game to lose it. I really believe that with the right tactics, the right motivation and the right spirit, we can achieve a lot. But it will be a very tough task,” he added.

Facing a powerhouse in front of over 60,000 Iraqi supporters makes it doubly tough for the visitors.

“We are the underdog and Iraq is the favorite. They can probably qualify for the World Cup,” he said.

“And going there to a stadium with almost 68,000 people, it will be a special experience for all of us. We have to be well prepared but we also have to switch on and say enjoy these games because we don’t play these games every week and even not every year.”

The team formerly known as Azkals will actually play the Lions of Mesopotamia back to back, with their return match slated Tuesday over at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila. — Olmin Leyba

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