MANILA, Philippines – Philippine Azkals first-choice goal-keeper Neil Etheridge is full of praise for Eduard Sacapaño after the latter's strong performance in the group stage of the AFF Suzuki Cup.
Etheridge was not available to play in the Suzuki Cup due to his commitment to Fulham FC in the English Premier League. The team's second-choice goal-keeper, Ronald Mueller, was included in the final 22-man line-up but has not yet arrived from his club duties in Germany.
It was up to Sacapaño, usually the third-choice goal-keeper, to fill in their shoes, and the 32-year-old stepped up in impressive fashion in the Azkals' three matches in the group stage.
After allowing two goals in their tournament opener against a tough Thailand side, Sacapaño kept clean sheets against Vietnam and Myanmar and made several spectacular saves, paving the way for the Azkals to qualify to the semi-finals for the second straight time in the biennial tournament.
In a Skype interview with ABS-CBN's TJ Manotoc, Etheridge commended Sacapaño for his role in the Azkals' campaign.
"He is a great guy to be honest, he was one of the great guys I’ve worked with. I’m fortunate to have him sitting on the bench. He’s always working extremely hard during training," Etheridge said.
Etheridge said that with both he and Mueller unavailable, Sacapaño had taken advantage of the opportunity given to him.
"This is a great opportunity for him, and to be honest, it's show in the last couple of games that he's good enough to take our place," Etheridge admitted.
Sacapaño and the Azkals' back four were tested against Vietnam and Myanmar but they held the fort and foiled all attempts.
Against Vietnam, Sacapaño prevented what could have been an equalizer when he got his fingertips on an attempt from Le Tan Tai just a few minutes from time.
"If it wasn't for that final tip in the last seconds of the game, maybe we wouldn't be in the same situation," Etheridge said.
"So yeah, this is his time to shine and I’m glad and happy for him," he added.
Prior to the tournament, Azkals head coach Hans Michael Weiss had expressed his confidence in Sacapaño.
"He is strong in training right now. He has our full confidence," Weiss said at the time.
Sacapaño, meanwhile, was quick to credit his teammates for their support defensively. He adds that his confidence is sky-high going into the semi-finals.
"Sobrang taas talaga ng kompyansa ko para sa semi-finals, pataas talaga ng pataas," he said.
The Azkals will take on the Singapore Lions in the two-legged semi-finals, with the first game scheduled for December 8 at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
The Azkals had beaten the Lions in their two friendlies earlier this year. In their most recent friendly in Cebu last November 15, Sacapaño had one of his best performances and was vital in the team’s 1-0 victory.