BANGKOK, Thailand – After two years of preparation and countless training sessions and matches, the men’s Philippine football team embark on a new journey as they begin their AFF Suzuki Cup 2012 campaign Saturday, November 24.
In the past, most Southeast Asian countries viewed their match against the Philippines as a foregone conclusion, marking the match as an automatic victory for their side even before kickoff.
That all changed with the 2010 edition when the Philippines drew Singapore 1-1 before winning a memorable match against defending champions Vietnam 2-0 that paved the way to the rise of the sport.
The Philippines then went on to qualify for the semi-finals for the first time in history, after a scoreless draw against Myanmar.
Even though the Philippines bowed to Indonesia in the semi-finals, there was no turning back for the Philippines.
Following the competition, they reached greater heights, making it to the second round of the FIFA World Cup last year, bagging third in the AFC Challenge Cup last March, and winning the Peace Cup last September — its first international title in 99 years.
Here’s all you need to know about the Azkals’ Suzuki Cup campaign.
1) The team is stronger and deeper than ever
Twenty two players flew from Manila to Bangkok Tuesday, November 20 and were reinforced a few days after by the arrival of overseas players. Defender Dennis Cagara, and midfielders Jerry Lucena, Paul Mulders and Angel Guirado joined the squad as well, further strengthening the roster.
The final lineup, posted Friday, November 23, confirmed goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s absence, but hope remains that Fil-German goalkeeper Roland Muller will join the team in the event that the Azkals advance beyond the group stages.
Dropped from the lineup are Ian Araneta, Nestorio Margarse, Andres Gonzales, Misagh Bahadoran and recent call up Joshua Beloya.
The roster is undeniably the strongest squad the Philippines has ever fielded in the competition. With solid players in every position and a bench that runs deep, anyone who goes on the pitch has the potential to be a game changer.
Aside from Phil Younghusband, the team can now rely on Denis Wolf as the other striker to blast the ball into the back of the net. The midfield is packed with the likes of experienced players Angel Guirado, James Younghusband, Lucena and Mulders, while the defense remains tight with Juani Guirado, Cagara, and Robert Gier holding down the fort.
On goal, Eduard Sacapaño mans the posts, fresh off a superb performance against Singapore which the Azkals won 1-0, and an impressive Peace Cup showing where he was recognized for his goaltending skills.
2) Host Thailand will be tough
The Philippines is grouped in Group A along with 3-time champions Thailand and two familiar faces from 2010 in Vietnam and Myanmar.
All four teams in Group A, known as the “Group of Death,” are the top 4 teams in the region based on the current FIFA rankings with Vietnam at the top, followed by the Philippines, Thailand, then Myanmar.
The Azkals first square-off against hosts Thailand, ranked 152 on Saturday, 9:20pm Manila time at the Rajamangala Stadium.
Despite being crowned three times (1996, 2000, 2002), Thailand hopes to avoid another slump after they did not advance to the semi-finals in 2010.
With fifteen matches between the Azkals and the War Elephants, Thailand has claimed 14 victories over the Philippines with the only win for the Azkals was a 3-1 victory in the 1971 Merdeka Games.
Thailand will be led by striker Teerasil Dangda, who has 23 goals in 48 appearances, and midfielder Datsakorn Thonglao. Incidentally, Thailand coach Winfried Schaefar came to Cebu last week to witness the Azkals’ 1-0 victory against Singapore.
Prior to the Suzuki Cup, Thailand had three games this month, winning all their games, one of them a 2-0 victory against 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup champions Malaysia last November 7.
3) Vietnam wants revenge
After Thailand, the Azkals take on 2008 champions Vietnam on November 27. Vietnam will be looking for revenge after the Philippines defeated them 2-0 in 2010 at their home soil.
Both sides have already met a total of six times. Vietnam has won four games, the teams drew once, and of course, the Philippines’ 2010 win.
Ranked number one in Southeast Asia, Vietnam looks to improve their 2010 semi-final finish as they, along with hosts Thailand, are considered as favorites to advance to the semis.
They will be led by striker Le Cong Vinh who already is Vietnam’s top goalscorer with 31 goals in his name.
4) Azkals have never won against Myanmar
The Philippines will last face Myanmar, ranked 156, on November 30 as their final fixture in the group stages.
Myanmar qualified to the group stages after finishing first place in the qualifying rounds last October, ahead of Laos.
It is an interesting fact that the Philippines have never beaten Myanmar (drew 3, lost 6) with their last two matches ending up in a draw, most notably in the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers last year when Myanmar scored a late equalizer to deny the Azkals the win.
Myanmar will field a relatively young squad in the tournament and will be led by striker Yan Paing who has 10 goals in 55 appearances for them.
5) The Suzuki Cup is Southeast Asia’s World Cup
The competition is the most prestigious in the region.
A biennial tournament, Suzuki Cup gathers the top 8 teams in Southeast Asia as they compete for football supremacy and national pride.
Results from the competition usually have significant influence in the FIFA world rankings of the countries involved.
Should the Philippines advance to the semi-finals, the matches will be played in a home-and-away matchup on December 8/9 and December 12/13 with the final to be played on December 19 and 22. – Rappler.com