SINGAPORE—Facing an opponent it had already defeated twice in the last three months and held scoreless in 270 minutes, the Philippines’ chances of crashing the AFF Suzuki Cup finals for the first time at the expense of Singapore couldn’t have been any better.
And perhaps this was the reason why the 0-1 loss to the three-time champion Lions in the second leg Wednesday night hurt the most out of their three semifinal stints in major tournaments the last two years.
“The odds were a little bit in our favor, that’s why it’s hard to take,” said stand-in skipper Rob Gier, who was also part of the side that reached the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup in 2010 and the AFC Challenge Cup early this year.
“The fact that we thought at least we can get to the final is what really makes it painful.”
Striker Phil Younghusband shared the same sentiment.
“I think this feels worse with all the expectation, the team we had, the players we had, we felt we could have gone further and that’s disappointing than the two other ones,” he said.
While Younghusband scored the goal that helped lift the Azkals past Myanmar, Gier anchored a resolute backline that laid the foundation for another stirring run in the region’s most prestigious tournament, which they also brought to the Philippines for the first time with a second straight semifinal appearance.
The Azkals conceded only three goals in five matches, including a run of 292 minutes without yielding a goal.
The Azkals’ defense was finally unlocked in the 19th minute by striker Khairul Amri, who has a penchant of rising on the big stage, having scored in the 2004 and 2007 finals when Singapore won the title.
The goal came off a quick and short free kick taken on the left and Amri, with nobody closing him down, fired the ball past a number of bodies inside the box, leaving Eduard Sacapano stranded on his spot.
The Azkals piled up the pressure in the second half with the introduction of captain Chieffy Caligdong. But the Lions refused to waver and almost often caught the Azkals napping on the counterattack.
And for once, the team that had been known to do well in the second half failed to conjure its magic.
Azkals coach Michael Weiss said Singapore, which is gunning for a record four AFF titles, deserved to win, although he called the goal that Amri scored a “gift.”
“Their goal was a gift. In the last 10 days we’ve been talking about set-pieces, then we give away such a simple set-piece,” said Weiss, whose squad repeated their famous win over Vietnam in the group stage in Bangkok. “It was a very nice shot, but it shouldn’t have happened.”
Weiss added: “They had that extra bit of caution and coolness and we didn’t produce too many chances.”
Younghusband said Singapore stifled the Azkals similar to the way the Philippines had also shut down its opponents in the tournament.
“I think they did an ‘Azkals’ on us,” he said. “We had much of the possession in the second half. There were so many bodies. It was so difficult to find space and create opportunities as teams found difficulty doing it against us playing that way.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami said he remains proud of what the Azkals had achieved in the tournament.
“It’s been a very tough journey,” he said. “It’s hard that it had to end here but … they went down fighting.”