THE Philippines finds itself in a precarious yet familiar position, one where the Azkals have proved to be comfortable in, as they take on mighty Thailand on Friday night, seeking to sustain their streak of semifinal stints in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup.
Despite having the home-field advantage anew, the Azkals are installed as the heavy underdogs against the undefeated Thais as they gun for the second and last ticket to the Final Four from Group A.
Yet the Filipino booters have no choice but to topple the semifinals-bound Thais, a country they have never beaten in the history of the tournament, to avoid complications and grant them safe passage to the semifinals.
The hosts have two points to show and are running second behind the Thais and a win against the defending champions will give the Philippines an insurmountable lead over Singapore and Thailand, which are tied for third spot with a point apiece.
“This game could be the last game, but it's the most important thing for us and we have to win it to get to the next round,” Philippine coach Thomas Dooley said in the pre-match press conference on Thursday. “It will be a little bit more pressure to the players in the field, but in the last two games, the effort and energy I could see in the team, it's there and it's just what you need.”
“I don't think it will be any more different than the games before,” the American mentor said. “We just have to focus, play ninety minutes, and make less mistakes as possible.”
Kickoff is at 8 p.m. at the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bocaue in an all-important match that will be simultaneously played as the encounter between Indonesia and Singapore at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
The Azkals stayed in the running for a fourth straight semifinal appearance, but likewise put their bid in jeopardy after settling for a second straight draw - a 2-2 decision against Indonesia last Tuesday.
A draw against Thailand will still allow the Philippines to qualify for the next round if Singapore and Indonesia battle to a draw.
But the Azkals are aiming for no less than a victory against the Thais, who, Dooley is hoping, would let their guard down a bit, having already secured themselves a semifinal berth.
“I know for Thailand when you're on the next round already, you are, in general, a little bit tired. You don't play 100-percent anymore, it's maybe only 90-percent, somebody takes it a little bit easy, maybe has a little lack of concentration. It's just normal,” Dooley said. “So we're hoping there could be some which play that way and it will work to our favor.”
But Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang stressed they will show no letup.
“We're already in the next round but tomorrow’s game is important, too,” the Thai legend fondly called 'Zico' said. “Our goal is three points, same as the last two matches. In the game, we’ll change some positions, but all twenty players in our team are strong.”
The Azkals simply hope to thrive as the underdogs like they’ve done in the past editions of the biggest football tournament in the region.
“If Thailand has an incredible game and we have a good game, maybe it's not enough so we have to get more and prepare one-hundred percent and hope Thailand makes more mistakes,” Dooley said. “We have to prepare for the best game ever in our lives for tomorrow.”