Azkals’ depth to be tested vs Vietnam as key players recalled by clubs
Down to 18 players, the Philippines may have to pull off a feat bigger than the “Miracle in Hanoi” eight years ago in the semifinals of the AFF (Asean Football Federation) Suzuki Cup.
Midfielder Patrick Strauss, who has emerged as one of the stars of the Azkals’ campaign, was the latest player to leave the squad after he was recalled by German second division club, Erzgebirge, just a day after the Philippines clinched a place in the knockout round on Sunday in Jakarta.
With the Suzuki Cup knockout round not covered by the international window, clubs are not compelled to release players for national team duty. Thus, Daisuke Sato, Stephan Palla and Neil Etheridge also had to return to their respective teams.
And with Strauss, a calm and assuring presence at midfield, also out, the Azkals are left with a mountain to climb as they take on a young and vibrant Vietnamese side in the two-legged semifinal starting on Sunday at Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City.
The Azkals actually stunned Vietnam eight years ago in Hanoi on their way to a first semifinal appearance in what is still considered the biggest upset of the tournament.
But the element of surprise won’t be on the Filipinos’ side anymore as the team is making its fourth appearance in the Last Four in the last five competitions.
Azkals captain Phil Younghusband said the team remains positive even as the Azkals would be facing the only team that has yet to concede a goal in the competition.
The core of Vietnam’s team also boasts plenty of quality, having reached the final of the AFC Under-23 championship early this year. The squad is led by an electrifying talent in attacking midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai, who has two goals so far in the competition.
While the Azkals are no strangers at being underdogs in the competition, Younghusband stressed the importance of making home advantage count.
“We should take confidence that we are at home in the first leg,” said Younghusband, who needed four stitches to close the cut on the head he sustained against Indonesia.
“We have to make the most out of that home advantage. It’s important that we get a result so that we’ll have something to fight for in the second leg (in Hanoi on Dec. 6).”
Azkals coach Sven Goran Eriksson does have some options to cover for the absence of Strauss and Sato against Vietnam.
Defender Amani Aguinaldo is fit and could start alongside Alvaro Silva.
“We do have a lot of depth in the squad,” said Younghusband. “And when we have confidence in our abilities, anything is possible.”
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