The CNMI Men's National Team's game against Palestine will be the toughest, as the Blue Ayuyus will be challenging the favored team in Group D of the Asian Football Confederation 2014 Challenge Cup Qualifiers.
The Commonwealth strikers will take on the Al-Fursan (the Knights) on March 4 at 2:30pm (around 7pm Saipan time), not on March 6 as earlier reported. Palestine holds the highest FIFA ranking (No. 153) in its bracket, as Bangladesh and host Nepal are ranked No. 169 and No. 174, respectively, and the CNMI has no FIFA ranking. The Al-Fursan also had the best finish among the group during the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, placing fourth behind the Philippines, Turkmenistan, and North Korea, and its Palestine Football Association was the recipient of the inaugural and prestigious FIFA Development Award.
“Definitely, Palestine is the team to beat in our group,” CNMI goalkeeper Johann Noetzel said in an earlier interview with Saipan Tribune last week before they left for Nepal to compete in the AFC event for the first time.
“They are physically strong and majority of the members of the team are playing in competitive pro leagues in the Middle East,” Noetzel added.
One of the pros on the tough Palestine roster is forward Ashraf Nu'man, who plays for Al-Faisaly (Amman) in the Jordan League and scored eight goals last season. A story posted on Nepal's football website mentioned Nu'man, as the player to watch in the Group D qualifier after the 26-year-old player scored a hat-trick in Palestine's friendly match against India early last month.
“We will be facing a big task when we meet Palestine in our second game and I hope our longer training preparation and fitter condition will be enough to give Palestine a good fight,” Noetzel added.
Meanwhile, the CNMI's debut in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifier against Nepal at the Dashrath Stadium in Kathmandu tomorrow has been moved to an earlier time, from 5:30pm to 5:05 (past 9pm Saipan time).
The Blue Ayuyus in an earlier interview with their players and coaches are positive against their chance against Nepal and are aiming to put on a good show in their debut in the AFC men's competition.
“We have to show our competitors in the region that we can play at their level,” coach Luam Khen Koo said.
“This is it. This is what we have been working hard since NMIFA was established in 2005. We've gone a long way, starting as a bunch of guys looking to play other sports. Then we became more competitive and have soccer as our No. 1 sport. It's time to experience this high level competition and show them we have skills and talents to keep up with these top teams,” long-time CNMI team member Steve McKagan said last week during the squad's send-off dinner.