BANGKOK – The Philippine Azkals are comfortable with the manpower they have for the AFF Suzuki Cup, even if there’s a big hole in the goalkeeping position left by Neil Etheridge and Roland Muller.
Both Fil-British Etheridge and Fil-German Muller are officially declared unavailable for the group stages that begin Saturday, due to commitments with their respective clubs, Fulham FC and MSV Duisburg.
But coach Michael Weiss and manager Dan Palami expressed optimism backup Ed Sacapaño can step up for the team that will be reinforced by Fil-Danish Jerry Lucena and Dennis Cagara, Fil-Dutch Paul Mulders and Fil-Spanish Angel Guirado.
“In Germany, when I was younger and playing, we always said the ones who are not here doesn’t count so why would this (absence of keepers) be an issue? How will it help me if I keep moaning and crying about Neil and Muller not being here?” said Weiss before conducting team practice in downtown Bangkok.
He said Sacapaño has been “very sharp and focused during practices and dished out a “super fantastic performance” in a 1-0 victory over Singapore during a friendly in Cebu last week, something he hopes the Negrense can sustain in this important campaign.
“I would be the happiest man if he can continue that. This man has been very, very hard in training on himself and pushing himself over the limit even if he didn’t have many chances. And when he’s there, he’s always very good,” said Weiss.
Like a good soldier, Armyman Sacapaño is ready for the call of duty.
“Malaking bagay wala si Neil, syempre iba ang level niya. Sa part ko, malaking kakulangan ang dapat kong takpan. Kailangan ko mag-step up. Ready naman (Neil left a big shoe to fill in so I have to step up big time. I’m ready),” the keeper from Bago City said.
To help whip Sacapaño into form leading to Saturday’s first match against host Thailand, the Azkals brought Swiss goalkeeping coach Pascal Zuberbühler, a former colleague of Etheridge’s.
“With the team that we have, I’m quite optimistic the team is full of confidence coming into the tournament and I think we can pull off a surprise. Even without Neil, although it would have been much, much better with him manning the post , I think Eduard has gained a lot of experience already for the past year with training and we’ve also brought in a goalkeeping coach just to see he gets proper training while he’s here,” said Palami.
Phl had its first training session Thursday with all of the 26 mainstays on hand, including newest arrival, Cagara.
“Those playing in Europe give us a big boost. The level of maturity they bring to the team affects everybody. When Jerry’s there, everybody settles down; they’re more comfortable because everybody knows he’s the leader of the team there and everyone looks up to him as somebody who has the experience and maturity to dictate the tempo and really create something for us,” said Palami.
“So with Dennis Cagara and then Angel, he provides us with the spark that we need every now and then – to do counter attacks, to press the other team and somehow his creativity allows us to have those offensive runs that otherwise we don’t have,” he added.
The Azkals open their bid in Group A Saturday night against the Thais, a side they haven’t beaten in six previous meetings since 1996. Next up is Vietnam on Tuesday, then Myanmar on the 30th, hoping to repeat their Final Four showing in the last edition.
“Last time we went to the Suzuki Cup, people were wishing us luck so we wouldn’t get clobbered much. Now, it’s different,” said Palami.