The AFF Suzuki Cup semi-finals leg between the Philippine Azkals and the Singapore Lions is more than just a match for the boys from the PI. It's going to be a barometer of how far they've improved since 2010—or as we would like to call it, local football's Year Zero.
It was after reaching this same stage two years ago that the Azkals first gained national recognition—and the Younghusbands became national sporting heartthrobs. Lowly regarded and under funded, the 2010 version of the Azkals surprisingly went unbeaten in group play to barge into semi-finals of that year's Suzuki Cup. That amazing run included a 2-0 victory over then defending champion and Southeast Asian powerhouse Vietnam. Although the Azkals lost a seat in the finals to a more potent Indonesian team, one thing was very clear: We now have a competitive national football team.
Fast forward to two years later and that "competitive" squad is now fast becoming a conteder. After a 99-year title drought in international play, we won the Philippine Peace Cup (the former Long Teng Cup) last September. The invitational tournament saw the Azkals defeat teams from Guam, Macau, and Chinese Taipei. We also captured the bronze in the AFC Challenge Cup, a competition for the top eight "emerging football nations" in Asia, last March. In between, the nationals drew twice with regional champion Malaysia in home and away matches and had beaten Singapore on their own turf. These more than modest achievements resulted in the country's highest ever FIFA world ranking (No. 143).
But whatever euphoria and bandwagoning those victories produced, it will easily be trumped by a win over the Lions. Make no mistake about it, there's a lot at stake for both teams as they prepare for the first leg of their semis pairing on December 8 at the Rizal Memorial Stadium (the second leg will be held in Singapore on December 12 at the Jalan Basar Stadium). The Azkals are playing to fulfill a promise and to earn the country's best international finish in recent memory. The Lions are not only out for revenge—aside from their aforementioned home defeat, Singapore also suffered a 1-0 setback to the Philippines in a friendly last November in Cebu—they're also out to defend their status as the reigning Suzuki Cup champs.
One thing's for sure, it's going to be one hell of a match. But, if you ask us, there are five keys for the Azkals to topple the Lions and secure a date with either Thailand or Malaysia in the championship. Read on.
1) Get the full squad available
This is more wishful thinking than anything else because a lot of the Azkals' overseas-based players were only cleared by their respective clubs to play in the group stages of the tournament. It's going to be a great boost for the team if they had Angel Guirado, Dennis Cagara, Jerry Lucena, Paul Mulders, Ray Jonsson, and Rolland Muller in uniform for the semis, but it's likely that some of these names will be unavailable.
The only sure returnees are Cagara and Guirado. The long-haired, pang-Spanish teleserye Guirado played a big role in the group stages of the tournament, assisting on Chieffy Caligdong's match-winning goal against Vietnam and scoring one of his own against Myanmar. Having Guirado in uniform gives coach Michael Weiss room for options on how to set-up his attacking front.
2) Finish strong
We don't consider ourselves experts in the sport, but it doesn't take one to see that the Azkals left far too many scoring opportunities on the table during the group stages. And while it's not healthy to live in a world of "ifs" and "what-could-have-beens," it's imperative for the team to take advantage of scoring opportunities. A flashy move here or a slight hesitation there could lead to a botched opportunity, a quick counter, and a scrambling defense—not to mention a sobbing nation. The Azkals can ill afford to get stuck anew in those kinds of situations, especially when you consider how our back four (that's the last four defenders before you reach the goalkeeper) struggled at chasing down their markers during the group stages. Hence, the Azkals should attack strong and finish stronger.
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