Azkals gun for s’final berth without LucenaBy Cedelf P. Tupas |Philippine Daily Inquirer
BANGKOK—The results were favorable to the Philippines in the AFF Suzuki Cup Tuesday night, but the euphoria was tempered by the departure of midfielder Jerry Lucena from the tournament here.
Host Thailand’s 4-0 walloping of Myanmar at the Rajamangala Stadium gave the inspired Azkals the inside track on the remaining semifinal spot with one playdate remaining in Group A.
The Azkals enhanced their chances after stunning Vietnam, 1-0, on a late strike from Chieffy Caligdong.
But the Azkals absorbed a blow later in the night after Lucena was recalled by Danish first division club Esjberg for the weekend, which meant that he will not be available for the crucial showdown with Myanmar tomorrow.
“I’m happy for the win but sad that I’m leaving,” said Lucena, who flew out of the Thai capital Wednesday morning. “I’m confident that the team will reach the semifinals without me.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami and coach Michael Weiss were burning the lines up until the wee hours of Wednesday morning appealing to Esjberg for Lucena to stay only to be turned down.
Palami said Lucena, who would have missed three matches for his club had he stayed with the national team here, could be available if the Azkals make the semifinals.
“Honestly, he will be a big loss,” said defender Rob Gier, who captained the Azkals for the first time in the win against Vietnam.
“You don’t really know he’s in the game but the amount of work he puts in cannot be measured because he’s just so invaluable to the team.”
Lucena’s absence could mean an opportunity for the likes of 2010 Suzuki Cup standout Chris Greatwich and the versatile Carli de Murga to finally get some playing time. Another option is the youthful Marwin Angeles, who came on as a substitute in the 1-2 loss to Thailand Saturday.
With its second straight victory, Thailand clinched the first semifinal spot in the group with the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar all in contention for the second semifinal berth.
Despite raving about their big win over Vietnam, the Azkals know their task of making the semifinals and bring the Suzuki Cup to Manila is far from finished.
“I thought our team was absolutely magnificent (against Vietnam),” Gier said. “Our chances just improved but we’re in no means through to the semifinals. It’s not a given that we’re going to win (against Myanmar).”
A victory against the Burmese side on Friday will seal qualification to the next round for the Azkals. But a draw might also be enough if Thailand gets at least a draw against Vietnam.