It is said that "lightning never strikes twice," and I agree. In 2010, the Philippine Men's National Football Team, a.k.a. the Azkals, shocked Southeast Asian football by reaching the semifinals of that year's AFF Suzuki Cup. In that impressive campaign, the Azkals drew with powerhouse Singapore and defeated defending champion Vietnam 2-0 to forge a semifinal showdown with Indonesia. Considering the status then of the Philippines as the perennial whipping boy in Southeast Asian football, that achievement was a like a bolt of lightning. It also served as that all-important spark that has brought about a football renaissance in the Philippines.
In this 2012 edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup, the Azkals have once again successfully hurdled the group stage and booked themselves a place in the semifinals. However, unlike in 2010, this wasn't any longer like a bolt of lightning. It wasn't a shocking development anymore. In fact, the team had set their sights on the semis as a reasonable target for their Suzuki Cup campaign. Not only the team, but their opponents as well felt that the Azkals had what it takes to make the semifinals. That's because in between the last and current Suzuki Cup a lot has changed in Philippine football for the better.
Following an aggressive effort to step up the quality and effectiveness of the Philippine National Football Team and football in the Philippines in general, the Azkals have achieved several notable milestones. It's quite a list of achievements, and as a result, the Azkals have garnered considerable respect and esteem from their opponents. We now have a deeper bench and our team is slowly starting to play at a higher technical level as opposed to just simply defending with their lives and hoping for an opportunity on the counter. So for the Philippines to reach the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup twice in a row is no longer surprising, it was well deserved.
Finding themselves in a "group of death," the Azkals' campaign started off with a 2-1 loss to Thailand. In a highly physical match, the Thais did all they could legally and illegally to grab 3 points against our team. They weren't taking any chances with the Azkals. Despite the shenanigans, the Thais deserved their win. They were the better team that night and they showed to one and all that they were favorites to reach the final by winning all their group matches to top the group. The battered Azkals could take heart from the fact that they kept the match close with the toughest opponent in the group and that the chance to progress was still there.
In this group stage, the second match is the most crucial. The result of your second match will have a major bearing on your team's ability to proceed to the next round. For the Philippines, a loss in their second match means the end of our Suzuki Cup campaign. We needed to beat Vietnam. Since they drew with Myanmar in their opening match, Vietnam needed a win as well to ensure their path to the semifinals. Both teams could not afford to lose and it clearly showed in the first half. Tentative and cautious, both sides several mistakes in possession. You would think the two teams were trying to outdo each other in number of bad passes made. In the second half, Vietnam started to settle into a rhythm and began asserting control. Philippines respond by making a few substitutions. With time slowly running out, the first team to score a goal was going to win that match. That goal comes in the 85th minute for the Philippines and it couldn't have been scripted any better. Following a poor performance in the match against Thailand, Azkal veteran Chieffy Caligdong comes in as a late substitute and scores the winning goal off a lovely pass from another substitute, Angel Guirado. Two minutes later, Vietnam almost equalizes but was denied by goalkeeper Ed Sacapano whose timely block sends the ball crashing to the crossbar and away from goal. Three points for the Philippines.
With their fate firmly in their hands, the Azkals just needed to deal with Myanmar for their last fixture in this group stages. While Myanmar may have been considered the weakest among the Azkals' opponents in this group, they were a dangerous team quite capable of causing an upset. Furthermore, the Philippines had yet to beat Myanmar based on their recent competitive encounters, the last ending in a draw. As the match progressed, the Philippines showed a lot of heart and a clear intent to win this one. Phil Younghusband in particular was on a mission to make amends for tepid performances in the first 2 matches and has several attempts at goal in the first half. The defense held firm and any Myanmar offensive forays were dealt with effectively. A little over a minute into the second half Phil Younghusband scores a wonderful goal to put the Philippines ahead and place one foot into the semifinals. Myanmar started to push forward and attack more aggressively as their hopes to reach the semis were fading away by the minute. This left space behind Myanmar's defensive line and on the 93rd minute, Angel Guirado took advantage. Running onto a clearance from Carli De Murga, Angel gets to the ball, controls it, keeps a defender at bay and coolly finishes sealing the victory.
In addition to making it to the semifinals, the group stage campaign showed that we have a solid defense. While a lot of improvement had been achieved by our team in terms of quality of play, our opponents are still a few notches above us so our defense plays a very crucial role with regard to our chances of going further in this tournament. It is also heartening to note that Ed Sacapano has been dependable in goal for the Azkals. There was quite a bit of apprehension when news started filtering in before the tournament that our Europe based keepers could not make it. Ed Sacapano showed everyone there was nothing to worry about. Chieffy Caligdong showed once again during the Vietnam match why he still continues to be part of the team. His time on the pitch may now be slowly diminishing but his value to the team remains high. Following a slow start, Phil Younghusband appears to be peaking at the right time. Not his usual effective self in the matches against Thailand and Vietnam, he's found his confidence and form once again in the Myanmar match and this is good for the Azkals. A deep bench, a combination of seasoned veterans with valuable experience and young guns with hunger and desire, the Azkals has deservedly earned a spot in the semifinals where they will face Singapore.
The team has set the semifinals as their goal, they have achieved that now. For sure, they are now busy working hard to go beyond that goal and the prospects look good. There is no room for complacency though. While we may have beaten Singapore twice just recently, friendly and competitive fixtures are two different matters altogether. Also, this is a two-legged affair so the approach and mentality is a lot different than a single winner take all match. Just the same, I would fancy our chances. We've gone this far, why not go even further? Let's go Azkals! WE BELIEVE!!!