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AFF Suzuki Cup Group A
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The Philippine Azkals will play host to a group stage of the AFF Suzuki Cup, the championship of ASEAN men's football, for the first time starting Saturday.
MANILA, Philippines – The top-ranked ASEAN side will need to prove that lofty billing against the 3 teams that eliminated them from contention in the semifinals in the last 3 editions of the tournament.
The top two teams from the group stage progress to the two-legged home-and-away semifinals in December, with a two-legged final series coming after that.
The other group will be contested by hosts Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia, who won a qualifying tournament last month.
Although it was reported for months that China-based striker Javier Patiño would be available for the tournament, it appears that that will no longer be the case. The Spanish-born Filipino will miss the competition.
A source from the PFF explained the situation. According to FIFA convention, a team must release players for international competition during FIFA international windows, but not necessarily for games outside those windows, like the Suzuki. Patiño's club season with Henan Jianye finished up two weeks ago, so he has no club commitments until next year. That theoretically makes him releasable.
According to the source, if a player is injured on international duty during FIFA dates, FIFA could help shoulder the costs of hospitalization and other expenses for the player. But this is not the case if the player is hurt on a non-FIFA day. The source says that Henan Jianye could thus void Patiño's contract if he is hurt playing for the Philippines during this competition.
“The contract is too big to take a risk,” said the source.
Fortunately Mike Ott, the younger brother of Manny, is available. He was at training on Wednesday and will be on the roster. The younger Ott could help make up for the loss of Patiño. He scored against Bahrain in a recent friendly. Mike plays for the second team of Bundesliga 2 side Nurnberg in Germany.
But the Azkals have also suffered another personnel blow, this time on defense. Daisuke Sato was not at training on Wednesday and it seems he will not participate. His Romanian club, CSM Politehnica Iasi, is under no obligation to release him, again, because the entire Suzuki Cup is played outside of FIFA international windows. Sato did play the entire match against Kyrgyzstan last week at center back and was instrumental in ensuring a clean sheet. He customarily plays at left back
Coach Thomas Dooley has 3 options in his roster to supplant Sato on the left side of the defense; Jeffrey Christiaens and Martin Steuble from Ceres, and Kaya's Shirmar Felongco. All 3 had international club experience this year in the AFC Cup. Steuble did get a red card in the second leg of the semifinal loss to Thailand two years ago so he may not be eligible to suit up on Saturday. That likely opens the door for Christiaens to start.
Luke Woodland, who played centerback in two friendlies in the lead up to this competition, will also not be in the squad. Dennis Villanueva now becomes the favorite to partner Amani Aguinaldo in the center of the defense.
Scouting the opposition
The Azkals start off with Singapore, the 2012 champions of the event. The Lions have underperformed of late, their recent 1-0 friendly win against Cambodia snapped a 7-match winless streak.
Veteran striker Fazrul Nawaz blew out his ACL a few months ago and is not playing. The onus will be on Khairul Amri and Shahril Ishak, veterans of the 2012 title-winning squad, to create, and for Baihakki Khaizan to shore up the defense.
Singapore, ranked 171 in the world, are picked by many to miss the semifinals. But this team did eke out a stunning 0-0 draw against Japan in World Cup qualifying last year, so they could pose a real threat to the home side.
Indonesia are a bit of a mystery team. They have only recently had their FIFA suspension lifted, so not a great deal is known about their current form. Merah Puti, (red-whites) can take encouragement from a fighting 3-2 loss against Vietnam in Hanoi last week. Fans of the Transitive Property of Equality will note that Vietnam defeated North Korea recently 5-2, just before the North Koreans beat us 3-1.
Stefano Lillipally, a former Netherlands youth player, will be a big boost to the squad in the midfield. But the real gem of this team is Evan Dimas Darmono. The 21-year old mid is a world-class talent who scored in the last Suzuki Cup against Laos. Dimas is shifty, has terrific ball control and can finish. This could be his breakout tournament.
Indonesia's marquee player, Irfan Bachdim, has suffered a fractured fibula in training and will miss the tournament. The Dutch-born “David Beckham of Indonesia” plies his trade in the second tier of the J-League in Japan.
Indonesia open the tournament with a game against Thailand on Saurday afternoon.
Thailand are the defending champs and they looked razor-sharp in drawing Australia 2-2 last Tuesday in a World Cup qualifier. Thailand are bottom in their tough qualifying pool and look set to miss the boat to Russia in 2018 but they have competed well in all their matches. On Tuesday only a soft penalty call on Australia's equalizer denied them what should have been a 2-1 victory.
Teerasil Dangda, Thailand's lead striker, is in form, striking twice on Tuesday. In 2014 Dangda was still playing in the Spanish second tier and was not lined up for the War Elephants for the Suzuki. They won it anyway without him. Dangda has 34 goals for Thailand.
Charyl Chappuis has been slow to get back from injury and did not play last Tuesday but Chanathip Songkrasin, the diminutive midfield magician, is a real quality player who set up the first goal with Tristan Do, Thailand's French-born wingback.
Thailand also have the recent passing of their king, Bhumipol Adulyadej to motivate them. Fans at the Rajamangala stadium on Tuesday wore black as a sign of mourning, and coach Kiatisuk Senamuang reportedly wept in the post-match interview.
The Philippines' match up with Thailand on November 25 could be very crucial for both teams. Singapore and Indonesia kick off simultaneously in Rizal Memorial on that time.
Despite the challenges, Phil Younghusband, the team captain, says team morale is high and they are full of confidence.
“This team is very close and we will fight for each other,” said the country's all-time leading scorer.
“We have quality players left and right, players with good experience. Not having Patiño and Sato are big losses but we have a good squad. I'm not worried.”
It also helps that there are no major injury concerns with the players in the camp. Even Misagh Bahadoran is looking sharp and even scored a scissor kick goal in the corner kick drills on Wednesday. He had been battling fitness issues and came off the bench to score against Kyrgyzstan.
Come Saturday it will be all up to the players to make some history in the Philippine Sports Stadium.
Possible starting 11
PYounghusband Manny Ott
Christiaens Villanueva Aguinaldo Muñoz