Match Preview: Philippines vs Singapore
The Philippines tangles with four-time champion Singapore on Saturday at the start of Group A play in the AFF Suzuki Cup at Philippine Sports Stadium in Bocaue, Bulacan. The two teams have met three times in the last six years with the Lions holding an edge, having beaten the Azkals, 1-0, in the second leg of the semifinals in 2012, after back-to-back draws in the group stage in 2010 and in the first leg of the last four clash in four years ago. But with the Azkals enjoying home field advantage and the Lions struggling to pick up results in the past few months, hopes are high that the hosts will finally buck the trend against the traditional favorites.
As in previous tournaments, preparation is always crucial for the Azkals. This time, coach Thomas Dooley believes his team is better prepared compared to two years ago when they suffered another semifinal exit. He had the team for more than three weeks just after the United Football League season. “We want to have our fitness gradually improving as the tournament goes on, not the other way around because thats what happened in the last Suzuki Cup,” said Dooley.
Dooley hinted at some “issues” in the lead up to the tournament, although the bigger concern was the unavailability of striker Javier Patino and defender Daisuke Sato due to club commitments. The attack will be loaded with Stephan Schrock, Mike Ott and Pika Minegishi all making their Suzuki Cup debuts.
All things considered, the squad Dooley at his disposal remains strong, save for the lack of defenders following the absence of Sato and Simone Rota, who sustained a knee injury early this year.
There’s no shortage in motivation for the team. Some of the familiar faces of the past three AFF Suzuki Cup campaigns are gone, but skipper Phil Younghusband insists he has a team that understands how important winning the tournament means to the country.
“I’m very confident,” said Younghusband. “I looked left and right, at the dinner table and in training, I know the ability of the players around me. I know they’re good enough (to win the Suzuki Cup).” As the Azkals take the first step to Suzuki Cup glory against the Lions on Saturday, here are some of things to look out for.
THE MAGIC OF THE SUZUKI CUP
The AFF Suzuki Cup happens only once every two years, but its importance to Philippine football cannot be overemphasized. Measure in the fact that the Philippines is hosting the group stage for the first time, then the Azkals are hard-pressed to impress before the homecrowd.
“It means everything to me. It means just as much to me as in 2010,” said Younghusband. “The Suzuki Cup is one tournament, which we can realistically win. It would be big for Philippine football.”
As one of the two holdovers for the squad from 2010 (older brother James is the other) when the Azkals stunned then defending champion Vietnam in the group stage, Younghusband makes it a point to share
stories from that amazing run in Hanoi to drive home his point.
“I think for my teammates, it’s realizing the importance of what it means to Philippine football,” said Younghusband.
“They must know our history in this tournament. They know its because of that 2010 run, they’re earning a living by playing football here.”
Incidentally, it was the clash against Singapore that started the miraculous run of 2010. Chris Greatwich scored the equalizer in injury time to salvage a 1-1 draw in a match where the Azkals soaked up the pressure from the Lions for almost the entire match. Carrying the momentum from that result, the Azkals went on to beat Vietnam, 2-0, before a hostile crowd to inch closer to their first semifinal appearance in the tournament.
QUESTIONS IN DEFENSE
Amani Aguinaldo has improved from the past two years playing high-level matches, but he faces a difficult task of leading a makeshift defense against some of the most region’s most feared attacking players. In the past, Aguinaldo can just look to his side and take cue from the likes of Rob Gier, Jerry Lucena and Juani Guirado. The three veterans have all hung up their boots early this year, leaving the 21 year-old with the responsibility to command and organize the defense, which has been a source of strength for the Azkals. Aguinaldo’s partnership with Sato in the 1-0 win over Kyrgyzstan in the friendly looked promising, but the Fil-Japanese couldn’t make the trip back to Manila. “We will try to keep it tight and help them out,” said Younghusband.
Still, questions abound on how well the Azkals can cope. Dooley is expected to put either Jeff Christiaens, a leftback, or Dennis Villanueva, a midfielder, in central defense. They would need time to settle into the position. It doesn’t help that Martin Steuble will be out of the first game against Singapore to serve a suspension for his red card against Thailand two years ago. But it will still boil down to Aguinaldo’s command of the back and the youngster is embracing the challenge. Aggressive on the challenge, Aguinaldo relies so much on his athleticism and strength. He would need more than that as he faces the likes of Teerasil Dangda of Thailand, Khairul Amri of Singapore and Boas Salossa of Indonesia. “I know I have to step up,” said Aguinaldo. “I know I have to take command and not just do my thing unlike the past.”
In a short competition where the margin of error is small, Younghusband stressed the importance of starting the tournament with a victory, but it won’t come easy against a Singapore side looking to make up for the disappointment of missing out on the knockout stage when it hosted the tournament two years ago. The Lions are also gunning for a record fifth Suzuki Cup crown, which will be another source of motivation. But recent results have not been encouraging, although the Lions did survive a stiff challenge from qualifier Cambodia, 1-0, in their final friendly last week. Singapore coach V. Sundramoorthy was known as “The Dazzler” for playing with style and flair when he donned the Lions’ jersey. But he has taken a more cautious approach in matches during his time in charge of the national team. He beams with pride as part of the Singapore side that beat the Philippines, 5-0, in the 1983 SEA Games.
Singapore can never be counted out. In 2012, the Lions also lost to the Azkals in the runup to the tournament and struggled to advance from the group stage. They beat the Azkals in the semifinals and went on to stun the Thais in Bangkok in the finals to clinch the crown. The squad isn’t lacking in leaders as Baihakki Kaizan, Daniel Bennet and Mustafic Fahrudin are still in the squad.
“It’s going to be tough because the Philippines has improved,” said Fahrudin, who was part of the 2010 and 2012 Singapore sides that played the Azkals.
With a mix of veterans and youngsters determined to impress, the Lions remain dangerous as ever.
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