THE Philippines’ journey toward regional football supremacy reaches a crucial juncture as the Azkals host Thailand in the first leg of their Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup semifinals on Saturday at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
After falling short of a finals berth in the past two editions of the tournament, the Filipinos are eager to prove they have what it takes to get over the hump this time.
And they hope to gain a huge head start against a seemingly unconquerable foe in the War Elephants as they brace for the return leg on Wednesday at the 80,000-seat Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok.
That’s why they’re treating the home match that kicks off at 8 p.m. as a do-or-die encounter as they seek to protect home turf.
“It’s now or never,” skipper Rob Gier said on Friday. “Big games require big performances from our biggest players. It’s as simple as that.”
“We know what’s required now.”
The Thais, though, have had the Filipinos’ number for over three decades, having beaten them in their last 14 meetings and all but two of their last 17.
But that is enough motivation for the Azkals, who have made breakthrough after breakthrough all throughout the year under coach Thomas Dooley.
“The guys are hungry,” Gier said as the team is coming off a timely wake-up call in a 3-1 loss to Vietnam in the group stage. “Everyone’s just raring to go.”
“The coach’s going to have a difficult time picking the team because everyone’s a hundred percent ready.”
Even Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang admitted the Philippine team that they outclassed, 3-0 in a friendly last month is just a shadow of the squad they’re set to face in front of enemy’s lair.
“It was just a friendly,” Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang said. “But the real game is tomorrow and it’s more important.”
But Azkals team manager Dan Palami remained wary of the mighty Thais, who are seeking a fourth AFF championship crown.
“We know Thailand is a very strong team and they’re as motivated as we are,” the Azkals boss said. “But we’ll be there and make sure that whatever happens, the Filipinos will be proud to see us fight tooth and nail tomorrow.”
“The team has accomplished a lot of firsts, so this could be one of those firsts again.”