By Cedelf P. Tupas
THE THIRD straight semifinal exit of the Philippine Azkals in the AFF Suzuki Cup should not take away the inroads made by the squad this year.
Although they bowed to Thailand, 0-3, on aggregate in the semifinals last Wednesday in Bangkok, skipper Rob Gier and striker Phil Younghusband believe the Azkals are an improved side than in previous years.
The Azkals reached the finals of the AFC Challenge Cup this year in the Maldives, losing to Palestine in the title match. The Suzuki Cup proved to be a shot at redemption and while they impressed with wins over Laos and Indonesia in the group stages, the Azkals were once again a letdown when it came to big games.
“I think (the improvement) has been big but there’s obviously something still standing in the way of the team and we can’t get over that final hurdle,” said the 33-year-old Gier, who hinted that the 2014 edition could be his last Suzuki Cup.
There’s plenty of promise in the Azkals side as youngsters like Daisuke Sato and Amani Aguinaldo continued to develop, playing their second major tournament this year.
Except for games against Thailand and Vietnam, where he struggled, the 22-year-old Manny Ott stamped his authority at midfield, giving the Azkals a reliable option at the position for years to come.
Younghusband said the improvement of the side was apparent in the tournament, where the Azkals scored a total of nine goals. They were however shut out for the third straight semifinal, extending their drought to six matches since 2010.
“I think we discovered we can pass the ball and we can create chances to score passing the ball,” said Younghusband. “But there’s still a barrier that we have to get over. We’ve fallen short again and it’s something that we have to change.”
Younghusband said the standing in the competition is reflective of the infrastructure and the popularity of football in the countries in Southeast Asia.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” said Younghusband, lamenting the fact that the Azkals still struggle to fill up the 13,000-seater Rizal Memorial Stadium, while the Thais can easily lure a crowd of 50,000 for the semifinals.
Thailand proved too sharp for the Azkals in the second leg of their semifinal tie Wednesday night at Raja-mangala Stadium. The Thais will meet Malaysia in the finals, after the Tigers staged a stunning fightback in Hanoi to oust Vietnam, 5-4, on aggregate.
Gier said the loss to the Thais still stings.
“It never gets easier,” said Gier. “You put a lot of sacrifices—being away from my family the past six weeks. That’s what makes it even more difficult when you continually come up short.”
Gier added: “It was really hard work out there and I can’t blame anyone after this (defeat).”
“It’s a tough loss that we have to get out of the system,” said Denmark-based midfielder Jerry Lucena, who vowed to reinforce the side again in World Cup Qualifying next year.
“The squad has to be better if we expect to do well in the future,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami.
Read more: http://sports.inquirer.net/169828/azkals-see-improvement-need-for-change#ixzz3Lj8qJtRy