Ahead of the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022, the Group B match between the Philippines and Thailand was tabbed as one of the competition's "unmissable fixtures" -- and with good reason.
The match between the Southeast Asian rivals will likely determine who will finish second in the group, with powerhouse Australia widely favored to seal the top spot, while Indonesia is a long shot, as it is making a return to the continental competition for the first time since 1989.
But the odds are arguably stacked against the Philippines, which has not beaten Thailand in 12 previous tries. The Thais dealt the Filipinas a 4-2 defeat in the 2019 AFF Women's Championship, and before that, beaten them, 3-1, in the 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup -- a result that assured the Thais of a berth in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Alen Stajcic, the new coach of the Philippine women's national football team, said he considers Thailand as just below the "Big Four" of South Korea, China, Japan, and Australia.
"Obviously, they've been climbing the ranks in the last five or six years. Yeah, maybe they haven't played a lot in the last year or two, but certainly before that, for me they are the best of all the rest," said Stajcic.
Thailand, ranked 38th in the world, has not played any official matches since the Women's Asian Cup qualifiers last year. But Stajcic knows the Thais still boast of a wealth of experience, with players who have previously seen action in the Women's World Cup.
"(They are) certainly a strong contender here as well. Still the same core group of players, so you know, maybe they haven't played recently but certainly they've got a good core that have been with their team for a long time, and a lot of experience now," said Stajcic.
"A lot of quality, and definitely a team that is gonna be strong opposition for us. I've got a lot of respect for them," he said.
Nonetheless, Stajcic stressed that he is optimistic of his team's chances, despite the history between the two squads.
The coach noted that even the Filipinas' 3-1 loss to the Thais in 2018 came in a "very tight game," and he believes that they have improved plenty since then.
"If we can improve a little bit, there's no doubt that we're gonna be a good opponent for them, and it's gonna be a very close match," he said. "When the match is all that close, it just depends on who brings their A-game on match day."
"I think of it as a real 50-50 contest. The way that this team's evolved and developed, and the way that Thailand evolved and developed, I see two really equal teams," he added. "It will just be a matter of who really brings their performance on game day."
The players themselves are reasonably confident, thanks in large part to a two-month camp that they had in the United States ahead of the AFC Women's Asian Cup.
Midfielder Tahnai Annis, who will skipper the 64th-ranked Philippines in the tournament, said they hope to build on their campaign in 2018 -- when they were just one match away from seizing a World Cup berth.
"We want to build off our experience in the last Asian Cup, and definitely improve off of how we did last time," she said. "We're looking to do really well here."
"I feel even more confident now after having spent so much time together with the training camp," she also said. "The staff that we brought in, I definitely feel that we're prepared, and definitely just as excited, if not more excited for our opening game on Friday."
The Philippines and Thailand will kick off at 5:30 p.m. in the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai (8 p.m. in Manila).