THE Philippines continues its pursuit of football glory as it kicks off its Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup campaign against Laos on Saturday at the My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Falling short in their last two competitions — finals losses in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup and the Philippine Peace Cup, the Azkals remain motivated as they seek to the end the year with a bang.
“This is a big deal,” skipper Rob Gier said. “The guys need to get excited by it and they need to get on board and they need to realize what this competition can bring. And we’re on course.”
After all, this is the tournament that started it all. Coming off two straight semifinal appearances in Southeast Asia’s showpiece event, the Filipino booters aim for no less than a championship this time.
“Now we just need that extra little (push)—it might be two percent or five percent—whatever we need to get us over that line,” said Gier, one of only two overseas-based standouts in the lineup.
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The first obstacle the locally loaded Azkals need to hurdle is Laos, which is seeking to make the most of the opportunity after catching the last bus to the group stage by finishing as the second-best team in the qualifiers.
The teams last met in the Challenge Cup group stage in May when the Azkals emerged a 2-0 winner.
Now, they face off once again in a Group A match at 5 p.m. at the 40,000-seat venue with the 129th-ranked Filipino booters entering as favorites against a team ranked 25 spots lower than them.
But rankings hardly matter based on the Azkals’ penultimate friendly, a 3-0 loss to 165th-ranked Thailand in a match that served as a wake-up call to the Filipinos.
The Azkals prevailed in their last tune-up, a 3-0 win over Nepal, but still showed signs of weakness especially on the defensive end.
“No matter what preparation you do, obviously you’ve got to make sure you get the right amount of games and the right amount of training and you’re fit enough,” star striker Phil Younghusband said.
“But the results that happened before, it doesn’t really matter. It’s important you perform in the actual competition.”
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“Historically, we are a good team when it comes to tournaments, when it really matters,” Gier said. “And I’m sure that’s going to be the case this time.”
Only the top two teams in group play advance to the knockout stage.
“We can be champions. That will always be our target,” team manager Dan Palami said. “It’s difficult to ascertain especially I haven’t seen much of Vietnam and Indonesia. But if we get through the semis, I think we’ll even have a better chance of getting the championship.”
“Certainly we have become a better team,” he added. “And with it comes higher expectations from everybody. We’ll take that up as a challenge and hopefully we’ll be up to it.”