MANILA, Philippines - Unlike in 2010 when they made a surprise semifinal appearance in the AFF Suzuki Cup, the Azkals enter the Last-4 against Singapore as an expected participant this deep into the ongoing tourney.
And the pressure to deliver and live up to expectations is higher than ever.
“Pressure is mounting but we look at it more as a challenge rather than an obstacle na pahirap (a highly difficult task),” said Azkals team manager Dan Palami.
Since shocking the region two years ago, the Azkals have gained much progress and seen a rise in stature. In the latest Fifa world rankings, the Pinoy booters are 143rd overall, and they are actually No. 2 among Asean nations.
“Everybody’s motivated by the tag of being one of the favorites. Everybody’s trying to step up and make sure we play according to our rankings,” Palami said.
The Azkals had been drawn in a tough bracket in the group stages, beating Vietnam, 1-0, and Myanmar, 2-0, to offset an opening day loss to host and Group A winner Thailand and book a return trip to the semis.
Some supporters are already thinking about a possible historic finals stint, or even championship, for Phl XI.
“The pressure also helps to keep us on our toes and to make sure we won’t get relaxed, complacent. If we do that, all the teams will be coming and pounding on us, making sure they disrupt our rise and pull us down,” Palami said.
The Azkals are buoyed by the fact that they will be playing in front of scores of followers in the first leg at Rizal Memorial on Saturday night.
“We’re trying to be cautious but optimistic with our chances. At the same time, we’re preparing hard,” he said.