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Photo | AFP

The Philippines tries to avert an early exit when it battles a heavily-favored New Zealand squad in the Group A preliminaries of the FIFA Women’s World Cup on Tuesday at the Sky Stadium in Wellington.

Game time is at 1:30 p.m. (Manila time) with the Filipinas aiming to book their historic first World Cup victory and keep their hopes alive in this prestigious 32-nation tournament.

But the battle will not be easy.

The Football Ferns, ranked No. 26 in the world, are beaming with confidence after booking their first World Cup win in 22 years — a 1-0 decision over Norway — in the opener last week at the Eden Park in Auckland.

The 31-year-old Hannah Wilkinson knocked down a goal in the 48th minute to seal the victory that sent the entire country in celebration.

The Filipinas, for their part, are coming off a 0-2 loss to Switzerland last Friday at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, making them the underdogs in this encounter that serves as a rematch of their friendly match last September won by the Football Ferns, 2-1.

The match, however, turned into a turning point for the world No. 46 Filipinas as it was the first time that they were stacked against a team with a higher ranking outside Asia.

Filipinas head coach Alen Stajcic learned a lot from that match, giving them the confidence to face teams from Europe and South American in preparation for the World Cup.

“That game was a really important game for us. It was the first time in a long time we had played a team significantly higher than us in the rankings,” Stajcic said in a pre-match press conference last Monday.

“Obviously, we didn’t know New Zealand was going to be in our group, but I remember walking off with Katrina (Guillou) at the end of the game and she was expressing the thought that we can compete with these teams.”

Unlike the Swiss, who were playing for major European clubs, some players in the New Zealand squad are campaigning in Australia’s A-League Women.

Filipinas and Western Sydney Wanderers forward Sarina Bolden will face her teammate and New Zealand midfielder Malia Steinmetz in the battle that will be held in front of thousands of local fans.

Meanwhile, Wilkinson and defender Katie Bowen play for Melbourne City in the A-League and made it as far as the semifinal of the A-League before bowing to local rival Melbourne Victory, where Kiwi defender Claudia Bunge plays for, via a penalty shootout, 3-3 (4-1).

Team captain Ali Riley plays for Angel City in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States with vice-captain and midfielder Ria Percival playing for Tottenham Hotspur in the Women’s Super League in England along with defenders CJ Bott (Leicester City) and Rebekah Stott (Brighton & Hove Albion) and goalkeeper Anna Leat (Aston Villa).

Stajcic admits they can’t predict the outcome, but they will make sure that they will fight until the final buzzer.

“We have arrived at the point where we have improved significantly enough where we can go onto the pitch and believe we can win the contest. That game (against New Zealand last year) was a real turning point for me to know that we can rise to this level. As to whether we can do it tomorrow or not, I don’t know,” Stajcic said.

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