MALE – Since their breakthrough year in 2010, the Azkals have been to the semifinals of international tournaments thrice before and ended up losing in all.
For their fourth try tonight in the AFC Challenge Cup’s Last-4 here, the Pinoy booters want to change this and exorcise the ghosts of previous semis losses by going all the way to the finals and the eventually, the title.
“I think we’ve had a little bit of inexperience before,” said captain Rob Gier.
The Fil-British veteran had personally experienced the joy of reaching the Last-4 of the 2010 and 2012 Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup and 2012 Challenge Cup and the consequent pain of stumbling in the crucial stage.
“Something in the camp feels a little bit different this time. You know, we’re not happy just to be in the semifinals. In 2010 Suzuki Cup, it was just an honor to be there because it was so unprecedented; the Challenge Cup last time was the first time we’ve ever got to that kind of stage before; the disappointment in 2012 Suzuki Cup was massive.
“But this time, there’s a certain amount of expectation from players, staff, people back home, media and I think, it’s a justified expectation because for me, if we just put in a performance like we did against Turkmenistan, you know we could be looking at a finals place. But before that we’ve got a tough Maldivian side to deal with,” he said.
The Azkals dished out what they felt was their best performance of the tourney in a 2-0 win over two-time runner-up Turkmenistan, which sealed their spot in the semis against Maldives, the No. 2 team from Group A.
“I think we’re peaking at the right time,” said team manager Dan Palami. “We just need to make sure injuries are avoided, other than that the team morale is high, we’ve got good support and the players are really eager to win.”