By Olmin Leyba
MANILA, Philippines - As the Azkals get back to camp after booking a return trip to the AFF Suzuki Cup semifinals, Phl XI management is working double time convincing the respective clubs of Jerry Lucena, Dennis Cagara and Angel Guirado to release the trio for the Last-4 duel with Singapore.
Midfielder Lucena of Esbjerg fB in the Danish Superliga, defender Dennis Cagara of Karlsruher SC in the 3. Fußball-Liga, and midfielder Guirado of Salgaocar FC in the I-League have all rejoined their clubs overseas after playing stellar roles in the Azkals’ campaign in the Suzuki Cup group stages in Bangkok last week.
The Azkals hope to have them back for another crack at history – the finals of Southeast Asia’s football showpiece.
“From the lineup we had in Bangkok, some of the players are yet to be released by their clubs,” Azkals manager Dan Palami said during yesterday’s PSA Forum at Shakey’s Malate.
He said Lucena’s club has a game on Saturday, the same day the Azkals are to play Singapore for the first leg of the semis at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium, but they could ask for his presence for the second leg on Dec. 12 over in Singapore.
As for Cagara and Guirado, Palami said they expect to hear a word from their respective clubs soon.
Three other overseas-based players – defenders Rob Gier of Ascot United and Juani Guirado of Racing Lermeño and midfielder Paul Mulders of ADO Den Haag – are already cleared to play and will stay in Manila in their semis buildup. Fil-Icelandic defender Ray Jonsson, who tore his quad and missed the last game against Myanmar, is expected to be back in action.
But even if the foreign-based players wouldn’t get the greenlight, Palami is positive the Azkals would still be competitive.
“We still have players like Chris Greatwich, Demit Omphroy, who couldn’t play in Bangkok because he got stricken by flu, and others like Marwin Angeles who could step up in the midfield position,” said Palami.
“I think the options are open, the depth is there, and we’ll see what the coaching staff will have to say,” he added.
Fil-German goalkeeper Roland Muller, who is listed in the final 22 but couldn’t come in the group stages, remains doubtful for the semis. But Palami is confident Ed Sacapaño will rise to the challenge again.
“Ed’s performance has been really outstanding the past three games and we look forward to him playing the same way as he did this Saturday. Hopefully, he’ll solidify his stature as a go-to goalkeeper when our foreign-based goalkeepers are not available,” the Azkals boss said.
Thrust into the starting role in the absence of Neil Etheridge and Muller, Sacapaño performed creditably with clean slates against Vietnam (1-0) and Myanmar (2-0) that offset a 1-2 setback to host and Group A winner Thailand.
“It’s brought confidence to Ed and the team as a whole, knowing that even if our No. 1 and 2 goalkeepers are not there, they can count on Ed already to man to post and make sure opponents can’t easily score against us,” Palami said.
The Azkals returned from a two-day break to train for the showdown with Singapore. They had one session at the Ateneo field yesterday afternoon and had set morning and afternoon sessions in the succeeding days at Rizal.
Although they beat the Lions in friendlies before, 2-0 in Singapore and 1-0 in Cebu, they expect a tougher rival this time around with the stakes higher.
“History will not count a lot in his particular game on Saturday because they’ve really prepared for this tournament as well. They are three-time champions and I believe they’ll come in fighting and trying to take a point here in the Phl. But we’ll be ready to face them,” Palami said.