Azkals hope to live up to expectations as top-ranked team in AFF Cup
Last year's Azkals Peace Cup squad bowed to Taiwan and now the national football team looks to bounce back. Jerome Ascano 

THE Philippine men’s football team finds itself in an unfamiliar position as a favorite in this year’s edition of the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup in November in Vietnam.

After coming in as underdogs in 2010 and contenders two years ago, the Azkals enter this year’s edition of Southeast Asia’s showpiece event as the region’s top-ranked squad and 128th in the world.

“I hope we live up to that ranking,” Azkals manager Dan Palami said on Thursday. “That’s the challenge to the coach and the team, a challenge we intend to conquer.”

The Filipino footballers, who barely missed a spot in the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup after finishing second to Palestine in the AFC Challenge Cup last May, have been bracketed in Group A with host Vietnam, Indonesia, and the qualifying round runner-up.

Group B is composed of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore — the competition’s other host, and the qualifying round winner.

“On paper, we may have the easier group, but we need to prepare for every game like the last one,” Azkals coach Thomas Dooley said. “It gives you a bit of confidence, but we still need to deliver.”

“The plan is simple and that is to win every game,” Palami said, hoping the national team will surpass its semifinal finishes in the last two editions. “We have to prepare well.”

A major part of the Azkals’ buildup is the Philippine Peace Cup in September at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

The Philippine Football Federation has arranged the strongest field ever for the Azkals’ title defense, with Challenge Cup finals tormentor Palestine, Chinese Taipei, and Myanmar as their opponents.

Taiwan defeated the Azkals in last year’s edition, while Myanmar is seeking vengeance following two straight losses to the Philippines.

“The Peace Cup is the gauge for us on how to prepare for the Suzuki Cup,” Palami said. “We are excited because the PFF has managed to get competitive teams.”

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With a new Fifa regulation requiring two-day breaks in tournaments set, the proposed match days for the Peace Cup are on Sept. 3 against Myanmar, 6, and 9, pending Fifa approval.

The PFF is also finalizing plans to have two matches in Canada and US from October 6 to 14, and a training camp in Qatar before the Suzuki Cup.

The Azkals are slated to start their local buildup on August 18.

Follow the writer on Twitter: @KarloSacamos