BACOLOD CITY—In terms of performances, the Philippines has been a mixed bag in its first two matches in the AFF Suzuki Cup, that’s why the expectations were tempered as the slick-passing and clinical Thailand side rolled into Panaad Stadium on Wednesday night.
The Azkals responded to doubts about their title credentials with their finest performance yet in the tournament, dominating possession and creating majority of the chances in a 1-1 stalemate with the two-time defending champion Thais at the soft and soggy pitch.
Thailand plays Singapore on Sunday in Bangkok, but the Philippines’ fate is in its hands as a draw or victory against Indonesia in Jakarta will send the Azkals to the next round.
There was plenty of positivity and an air of confidence from the squad as it left Bacolod en route to the Indonesian capital.
“I think that was the best performance that we had in this tournament even if it was a draw,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami. “Our performance was better than the wins against Singapore and Timor Leste.”
“It’s an excellent team performance,” said assistant coach Chris Greatwich. “The boys dominated the game from start to finish and we deserved more than just a point. Full credit goes to the players for putting in such a good performance—their attitude has been first class.”
The Azkals tracked back every time they lost possession, won 50-50 battles and showed they could operate in tight spaces inside the box with Stephan Schrock a constant threat on the flanks.
More importantly, the Azkals may have found the balance of getting their shape and organization spot-on when they didn’t have the ball while not exposing themselves defensively when they’re creating great chances—something that they lacked against Timor Leste.
The entry of Alvaro Silva in the backline proved key in stabilizing a wobbly defense, while Jovin Bedic emerged as an additional attacking option as the team goes further in the tournament with a performance highlighted by his bizarre goal in the 81st minute.
“As a Filipino player, you dream of scoring for the Philippines,” said Bedic. “Thailand is the favorite team in the tournament. It was a big game. I’m proud of what our team was able to achieve tonight. The whole team was working hard but with Thailand ahead, we knew it was going to be difficult. But coach told me to prepare so I just grabbed the opportunity.”
Greatwich said Bedic’s performance typified what the squad was all about in terms of its development the past few months.
“He (Bedic) has been excellent in training and typifies the superb application of the whole squad,” said Greatwich. “The culmination of all his hard work in this camp (and throughout the season) came to the fore last night.”
Need more work
The Azkals still have to work on their finishing inside the box as Phil Younghusband, Daisuke Sato and Patrick Reichelt all spurned superb chances. But they have laid down a marker for the rest of the teams in the tournament: When they are in their game, they can topple any team—even the defending champions.
The Azkals came into the match looking to end a 46-year winless spell against the Thais. And even if they failed in that bid, the team’s battling performance was enough to impress coach Sven-Goran Eriksson.
“First of all I think we played very well 90 minutes,” said Eriksson. “We were the better team out there. A draw is OK but we could have won the game. I think we did very well against a good team.”
“If we play like this we should qualify for the semifinals,” added Eriksson. “I think this is a very good performance for us.”
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