Football: Azkals optimistic of Suzuki Cup breakthrough despite tough build-up

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 02 2021 01:12 PM

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MANILA, Philippines -- The COVID-19 pandemic has not made it easy for the Philippine Azkals to prepare for the much-delayed AFF Suzuki Cup, but the team's leadership remains upbeat of their chances in the tournament.

Having made the semifinals in four of the last five editions of the Suzuki Cup, the Azkals are determined to finally break through this time and advance to the finals.

"The Suzuki Cup will always be remembered as the tournament where the Azkals gained the recognition and respect of our Southeast Asian neighbors," said Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Mariano "Nonong" Araneta.

"We're hoping that this time, it's also the tournament where we'll get our first major trophy," he added.

The Suzuki Cup was originally set for November 23 to December 21 in 2020, but was postponed twice because of the pandemic before eventually being set for December 5, 2021 to January 1, 2022.

The Azkals' resurgence started in 2010 when they made a surprising run to the semifinals of the tournament. They also advanced to the Suzuki Cup semis in 2012, 2014, and 2018, but each time fell short of a place in the final.

Preparing for the 2020 edition of the tournament was not easy, not least because of the pandemic. Moreover, as the Suzuki Cup does not fall in the FIFA international window, several players have not been made available by their clubs for national team call-ups.

Among those who will not see action in the tournament are: Gerrit Holtmann, Patrick Strauss, Raphael Obermair, Michael Kempter, Neil Etheridge, Josh Grommen, Patrick Deyto and Randy Schneider.

Injuries also prevented players like Jarvey Gayoso, Manny Ott, and Carlie De Murga from suiting up. 

Still, coach Scott Cooper called up a 27-man pool for the campaign, with the team already fulfilling their quarantine requirements in Singapore.

Because of the pandemic, the entire Suzuki Cup will be held in a centralized location instead of the traditional home-and-away format.

"This particular version, or edition of the Suzuki Cup has been the most challenging for myself, personally, and the team, as well as I'm sure, PFF and the coaching staff," Azkals team manager Dan Palami admitted.

"We have yet to train. Maybe the players will be released from quarantine today so that will be the start of training," he added.

"The only thing that comforts me is the fact that these players have always been giving their 100% every time they step on the pitch. They forget all the problems, the long travels and everything. Every time they step on the pitch, and really, they embody the true spirit of being a Filipino who conquer everyday struggles."

Leading the way for the Azkals in the Suzuki Cup is veteran midfielder and team captain Stephan Schrock, along with Patrick Reichelt, Mike Ott, Martin Steuble, Angel Guirado and Kenshiro Daniels.

The tournament will also see the much-awaited national team debut of naturalized striker Bienvenido Marañon.

"We have a squad of players who are typically very mentally strong," assured Cooper. "As with any national team tournament, you have to be organized going in, you have to keep a good team spirit, and you have to be focused."

"That's what we will be," he added.

One reason that Cooper is optimistic is that the Azkals are coming off a relatively solid campaign in the FIFA World Cup/AFC Asian Cup joint qualifiers earlier this year, where they emerged with 11 points from eight matches played. While the Philippines' road to the World Cup came to an end, the Azkals still advanced to the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers.

Cooper said the team is in good form heading into the Suzuki Cup.

"In our last seven games, we've only lost two games. We've conceded less than a goal per game in the last seven games," he noted. "This is a national team that is not easy to play against. We are organized, we've got commitment and desire."

The Azkals are grouped with Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, and Timor-Leste in Group A. They open their campaign against the hosts on December 8, followed by Timor-Leste on December 11, Thailand on December 14, and Myanmar on December 18.

The semifinals are scheduled for December 27 and 28, with the final set for January 1, 2022. 

All matches will be available in the Philippines through TapGo.