TWO Southeast Asian nations aim to take a step closer towards football supremacy in the region when the Philippines and Singapore collide in the first leg of the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup on Saturday night at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Game time is set at 8 p.m. with the Azkals looking for nothing less than a victory against the Lions as they hope to take advantage of finally being able to play before home fans in the Final Four.
The Azkals made their debut semifinal appearance two years ago opposite Indonesia but were deprived of a home game for having no home pitch that passed AFF standards. Having to play both legs in the Indonesians’ turf at the Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta, the Filipino booters lost, 2-0, on aggregate.
The Lions, on the other hand, have thrice been champions in the 16-year history of Southeast Asia’s premier football competition, but have only made it to the semifinals for the first time since 2007.
“In historical perspective, Singapore has had a good run at it so the Philippines intends to write its own history,” Azkals manager Dan Palami said during the pre-match press conference on Friday. “We hope we could have the result we want. Of course the crowd will be a very big help in pushing us forward.”
In their head-to-head matchup, the Lions hold the edge against the Azkals as the Singaporeans have a 13-4-1 (win-loss-draw) slate against Filipinos, although the last two matches have both been Philippine victories.
But Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic believes the Lions’ squad the Azkals faced in the last three months will be a different one from the team the hosts will be facing this weekend.
“Singapore was not complete in those games,” said the Serbian mentor, whose striker, Aleksandar Duric, failed to see action in the Azkals 2-0 win at the Jurong West Stadium last September.
Palami believes Singapore also played gallantly in their second meeting this year before surrendering a 1-0 decision in Cebu last month.
“We were lucky to escape with a one-nil win but I think for most part of the game, Singapore actually played better than we did,” Palami admitted.
Avramovic expects another physical encounter against the Azkals, whose top-choice goalkeeper Eduard Sacapaño is now the lone homegrown Pinoy in the starting lineup after skipper Chieffy Caligdong was relegated to the bench, starting in the team’s second game in the group stage against Vietnam in Bangkok.
“Ninety percent of their players are European, meaning the game can be a lot physical. It means some way we’ll face the same situation (like in our two friendlies) and I hope this time we can do better,” Avramovic said.
While the Azkals are basically fielding the same lineup that beat Myanmar, 2-0, in the final game of the group stage with Filipino-Danish left back Dennis Cagara and Filipino-Spanish striker Angel Guirdao suiting up, the Lions will be missing their starting right winger in Shi Jiayi.
“It’s good to have all the players you want, but if you don’t have them, then you must deal with the situation,” Avramovic said. “In this case, there are other players filling in and this has happened before. We see how they adapt.”
Although a loss or draw would not eliminate them outright with a return leg set in Singapore, Avramovic is definitely going for the win.
“I prefer to win.”
“I think it’s very simple: both teams are looking to be in the Finals. I think in the end, who is more patient, who is more experienced, in some way can end up as the winner,” he added.