There is no such thing as a favorable draw for the Philippines in the Suzuki Cup. For years our ASEAN neighbors have used us for their highlight reels with coaches wagering on how many goals they would score against us.
Two years after Vietnam and Indonesia, we have everyone’s respect. The Philippine Men’s Football National Team will no longer sneak in like a stealth fighter in the competition. No one will take us lightly for sure, more so now that it has been proven that the Miracle of Hanoi was no fluke. There was the fantastic run in the AFC Challenge Cup and the string of recent friendlies where we have drawn with the 2010 Suzuki Cup winner and runner-up in three matches. So no doubt we have the region’s attention.
Taking a look at Group A, we drew the region’s traditional power Thailand, unpredictable Vietnam and whoever the winner of the qualifiers may be (although I figure that will be Myanmar). Whether we are in this group or Group B nothing is easy for us. Or for anyone for the matter.
The recent victories by first Vietnam four years ago and then Malaysia two years ago (coupled with our rise) shows that there has been a disturbance in the force that is Southeast Asian football. There is a changing of the guard with new powers rising. And that makes for even better competition.
Looking at Group A, the Thais alone have been unable to test our mettle but, for sure, they will play us rather warily. Trend-wise (if you look at their poor 2012 record), should they continue their slide, we could beat them and still book a semis seat because Vietnam will not be slim pickings at all. Of course, one doesn’t win on trends alone because teams have to go out and take them. The point being is, they have been unimpressive of late.
Vietnam gained a small measure of revenge when they crushed the Philippines’ Under-23 team in the recent Southeast Asian Games. But the Suzuki Cup is for the actual bragging rights. Doi Tuyen Viet Nam will be facing a much better senior Philippine side than the one that dispatched them in Hanoi. But if there is any indication for Vietnam this 2012, they do not play that well away from home. And that augurs well for us.
If it is Myanmar that we have to deal with, when we last faced this team, we drew 1-1. At best the Burmese, with all their top players about to or still a few years from reaching their prime, are spoilers in this group. However, with these current batch of Azkals having been together for a year or two now, the chemistry is starting to hum and the confidence is scoring. I believe that we will finally beat the White Angels.
However, there are interesting developments throughout the region.
During the recent Causeway Challenge between Singapore and Malaysia that ended in a 2-2 draw, Lions coach Raddy Avramovich started an all homegrown 11. He only began to insert his naturalized players later in the match. Is this a startling new direction for Singapore that has experienced with dwindling domestic interest in the S-League? In a conversation with ageless striker Alex Duric recently, he pointed out that the Lions have been experimenting with youth to pave the way for the retirement of this current batch this is probably on its last tournament as a team.
Malaysia will be undoubtedly be concerned because they not only drew with Singapore that played without Duric but also because they have been unable to beat the Philippines at home and away.
Singapore can just turn it on and surprise everyone. This is a tournament that brings out regional pride. It is watched by how many millions of people live and in the stadia. Every team, every nation will put their best boots forward.
Some have opined that it is possible that if Thailand plays to their strengths and Vietnam plays steady, we will miss a semis seat. It is possible but that doesn’t mean that we have backslid. It would be nice to see the momentum continue. But given the attention to local football, it will take a generation – if properly nurtured – to get us into higher ground. Another semis seat and beyond, who knows where we will go.
Here are other thoughts from my colleagues in the region:
Gary Koh, S-League writer: The group involving the maritime nations (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) is very interesting -- plenty of rivalry matches to be expected. As for the other group, a lot is contingent on how the Azkals and Thais perform. With Vietnam likely to reach the semis, it will be a battle between the Philippines and Thailand, the co-hosts for the other semis. The Thais have not been doing well of late internationally.
For Singapore's group, given the rich history and rivalry both on and off the pitch, this is one of the most fascinating groups in Suzuki Cup history. If Brunei qualifies into that group, we might as well call it a maritime group and a mainland group.
Fabius Chen, Straits Times writer: Tough games all around. No easy ones for any country.