Azkals shoot for semifinal slot in Jakarta
JAKARTA—Their confidence boosted by a huge result over reigning champion Thailand, the Philippine Azkals look to exorcise the ghosts of past failures at the cauldron-like Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, where they will be gunning for a semifinal berth in the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup.
The Azkals face an Indonesian team that is surprisingly out of the running for a place in the knockout round as the two countries renew their rivalry on the final day of the group stage here.
For a change, however, the pressure to deliver will be on the Azkals, who are coming off a 1-1 draw with the Thais last Wednesday at Panaad Stadium—a result that knocked Indonesia out of contention.
But returning to Bung Karno still give Filipino players chills as it was the site of the two matches against the Indonesians where the Azkals reached the semifinals for the first time eight years ago.
The Azkals lost both legs via 1-0 scores as they faced not just a strong Indonesian team, but also a hostile and intimidating home crowd of 90,000.
The stadium has been scaled down to fit 68,000 people, but memories remain for past Philippine teams, including the 2002 squad that suffered an embarrassing 1-13 loss here.
“I know it brings back memories, but I think those matches will be very different from tomorrow,” said captain Phil Younghusband, referring to the match kicking off at 7 p.m. Sunday night.
“I remember the atmosphere here and a lot of us were new to that kind of pressure. It’s a different game, a different time and hopefully, a different result.”
Thailand and Philippines are actually on pace to reach the knockout stage with seven points each, although the Thais hold a superior goal difference. Another draw will be enough to send the Philippines to the semifinals, but a loss coupled by a Singapore win over Thailand in the match simultaneously kicking off in Bangkok will eliminate the Filipinos.
The Azkals will still advance with a loss, granting that Thailand wins in the simultaneous kickoff. A Singapore win and a draw in Jakarta will eliminate Thailand.
“We know it’s a very important game and to lose is a big risk,” said Azkals coach Sven Goran Eriksson. “We don’t expect an easy game because everybody wants to win. It’s a difficult game, but a big game nonetheless.”
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