BOCAUE, BULACAN—For a team that has a penchant of pulling off historic feats in the AFF Suzuki Cup, the Philippines will have to put together an even bigger one tonight at Philippine Sports Stadium here against the standard bearer of Southeast Asian football.
Not only are the Azkals gunning to end a 15-game winless spell spanning 44 years against defending champion Thailand.
They will also be fighting for a place in the semifinals for the fourth straight tournament.
“We’ve been making history quite often the past five or six years and we’re looking to do the same this time,” said skipper Phil Younghusband, noting that the Philippines also beat Indonesia—for the first time in 80 years—two years ago in the same tournament.
“It’s the kind of games that you live for,” said Azkals coach Thomas Dooley. “We look up to Thailand, but it’s obviously a game we have to win to get to the next level.”
The tension is palpable within the Azkals camp, after they opened the tournament with back-to-back draws that has left the race for the second semifinal berth wide open.
The clash against Thailand would have been for top spot in the group, had they finished off chances against Singapore and stayed organized defensively against Indonesia.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s only because we have set high expectations,” said Younghusband.
The Fifa (international football association) rankings see the Azkals as the region’s top side, but they remain the heavy underdogs against the Southeast Asian giants, who are expected to rest their stars having already clinched a semifinal berth.
The Thais, who have beaten the Philippines six times in seven meetings in the tournament, can afford to drop points from the match set 8 p.m., but coach Kiatisuk Senamuang said he is in no mood to give the Azkals any favors.
“Everyone here is a friend, but if you want to go with us next round, you have to beat us [tonight],” Senamuang jokingly told Dooley at the prematch press conference yesterday.
A draw or defeat for the Azkals will mean elimination if a winner emerges from the Singapore-Indonesia clash simultaneously held at Rizal Memorial Stadium.
“Now we have a real final, a big goal,” said star midfielder Stephan Schrock.
“They (Thais) are the best team in Southeast Asia so if we beat them—and we can beat them—we deserve to go to the semifinals.”