Azkals in tougher Suzuki groupBy Cedelf P. Tupas
Philippine Daily Inquirer
It was always going to be a tough draw whichever way the Philippine Azkals looked at it.
The Azkals, the 2010 surprise Suzuki Cup semifinalists, leave for Bangkok in November after the 2012 draw placed them in a group together with the host and three-time champion Thailand, 2009 winner Vietnam and the top team of the qualifying stage.
The Azkals first play Thailand on Nov. 24, followed by a duel with Vietnam three days later, before wrapping up their group assignments against the top qualifier on Nov. 30.
The Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s premier football championship which lured a total attendance of 765,000 in 2010 and a television audience of 192 million all over the region, served as the launching pad of the Azkals’ stirring run that propelled the sport to new heights in the country.
“The Philippines will be there not just to participate but make sure to qualify for the semifinals and we will do everything that we can to achieve that,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami yesterday at the draw event in Taguig.
The other group drawn in a lavish ceremony in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday will go to Kuala Lumpur, where defending champion Malaysia will host 2010 losing finalist Indonesia, three-time winner Singapore and the No. 2 team of the qualifiers.
It marked the first time that the Azkals were seeded straight into the group stage, after their impressive showing in the 2010 tournament where they came all the way from the qualifying stages to reach the semifinals.
The teams that will go through the qualifying stage in Yangon in October are Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei and Timor Leste.
The Azkals played Malaysia and Indonesia and came away with draws but found themselves bunched with teams occupying the top two in Southeast Asia based on the International Football Federation (Fifa) rankings.
Vietnam has a score to settle with the Azkals, who humbled the then defending champions, 2-0, at the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi in the biggest upset of the tournament.
The Philippines has never beaten Thailand in the regional tournament and their last meeting ended in a 0-4 rout in Bangkok in 2007.
The Azkals are no strangers to tough groups as they were also put in the “Group of Death” in the AFC Challenge Cup with three former champions, before advancing and eventually nailing third place.