MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippine Azkals cannot take any team lightly as they prepare for the group phase of the AFF Suzuki Cup, which starts on December 5 in a centralized venue.
This, according to Azkals boss Scott Cooper who said that the Philippines had been drawn into an "interesting" group.
"As far as the draw goes, it's an interesting one," Cooper said after the draw was held virtually last Tuesday.
"I never wanna say I'm pleased with the draw, but I'm not unhappy with the draw. So, I think we take it how it is," he added.
The Azkals were drawn into Group A along with five-time champions Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, and the winner of a playoff match between Brunei and Timor Leste.
Defending champion Vietnam is in Group B along with Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos.
Cooper noted that their group is very similar to their draw in 2018, when they faced Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Timor Leste. The Azkals advanced to the semifinals after compiling eight points from two wins and two draws.
They lost to eventual champions Vietnam, 4-2, on aggregate in the semis.
"The last time that we played the Suzuki Cup, we had Singapore, Timor Leste who could be there, and Thailand in the last one. You know, the difference was we had Indonesia. So, it's interesting, it's almost like a replay of 2018 in that sense," he said.
"So it's an interesting one," he added.
Thailand topped their group in 2018, winning three games though the Philippines held them 1-1 at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod. Cooper has every reason to believe that the Thais will still be the favorites to top the group this time around.
"Of course, you have to look at Thailand as being the strongest team in the group, and Singapore are always well organized, and Myanmar have got some talent," he noted. "Both Timor Leste and Brunei will fight."
The Azkals escaped with a 3-2 win against Timor Leste in 2018, having surrendered two late goals after taking a 3-0 lead.
"They were really well coached, they pressed us and we narrowly escaped that game," Cooper recalled.
"So I don't think you can take any team lightly," the coach stressed. "For sure, Thailand will be the top team in the group, you'd expect that from them."
The Suzuki Cup marks the Azkals' return to competition after the second round of qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup, held last June at the United Arab Emirates.
The biennial event was originally scheduled for December 2020 but had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ASEAN Football Federation is set to announce a centralized venue for the competition, after the home-and-away format was scrapped over health and safety concerns.
"We are now in the final stage of selecting the host country for our centralized tournament. We are doing everything we can, working with all the relevant authorities to ensure the safety of all the participants," AFF chief Major General Khiev Sameth said. -- With a report from Reuters.