I started the early morning of December 10 feeling tragically optimistic that Liverpool would somehow cinch a home win over Basel to proceed to the knockout stages of the Champions League. I ended up feeling sorrier for Steven Gerrard than for myself over a crummy 1-1 draw that saw Liverpool largely uninspired and lacking ideas.
I started the evening of December 10 hoping against all hope that the Azkals would break their scoreless streak in the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup for the third consecutive tournament. I ended up feeling sorrier for Rob Gier and his tired, dejected face when the final whistle blew at the Rajamangala Stadium.
This is when your emotional well-being takes a beating. Days and nights end with extreme opposites of emotion. Elation for those shots on target replaced with deflation and what-could-have-beens. Hopes dashed with the knowledge that a shot made or missed spelled the outcome of a game.
Add to that aging captains and talismans who might not be around much longer.
Feelings are indeed all over the place.
Let me take a step back though. There was much optimism surrounding the 0-0 draw in Manila as a momentum that the Azkals could ride on. Maybe it was just us pep-talking ourselves that we could change our fortunes in an away game. After all, recent history (as in the 2012 Suzuki Cup) tells us that a goalless draw at home never really set the stage for an away win.
Two years ago, in the away game against Singapore, we regressed to the 2010-2011 version of ourselves, resorting to long balls and lacking creativity anywhere. This time around, we played catch-up to Thailand since the start of the match---and paid for it. While we were able to impose a semblance of our game in the second half, Thailand simply outplayed and outclassed us (times like this, I miss the brazenness of Stephan Schröck to tear down the middle and match Charyl Chappuis in the swagger department).
Inasmuch as this loss bites once again (and how we have to wait for another two agonizing years to try and stamp dominance on ASEAN football), the loss to Thailand opens up opportunities for introspection and taking stock of where we are in comparison to the rest of the region (rankings be damned).
When I look back at our tournament, the three key standouts to me were Misagh Bahadoran, Patrick Reichelt, and Amani Aguinaldo.
Misagh Bahadoran received a lot of love from me on Twitter, but while he lacks the killer instinct in the final third and his decision-making skills have been suspect, you can't fault the guy for trying. In all the years I've watched this guy on the pitch, this is probably the tournament where you can say he's tried his darndest.
Patrick Reichelt, to me, has posed a greater scoring threat than Phil Younghusband, and this super-sub role fits him well.
As for Amani Aguinaldo, the boy has grown into a man in this tournament, and he is definitely the future of our aging backline. When fans of other nations in the tournament go the extra mile to intimidate this player (and when the opposing team all makes a go for him, expecting him to crack), in a sense, this is a good sign that they are taking him seriously.
Let me go back to Liverpool for a bit here. When my Reds crashed out the Champions League, Steven Gerrard essentially pointed out that Liverpool did not crash because of that one home game at Anfield versus Basel. The situation that they put themselves in---a must-win game at home---was the result of several games where they could have ended in better results for themselves. I can't help but feel the same way for the Azkals---we put ourselves in a situation where we could not win against the likes of Thailand or Vietnam and botched our chances of winning at home by fluffing two or so really good chances to score.
That said, the game versus Thailand gives us much room to learn from the rest of the region. Two years ago, the likes of Teerasil Dangda and Theeraton Bunmathan captivated us. Those big names are absent now, replaced by the likes of Chanathip Songkrasin (dubbed Messi Jay---and we all saw why at the Rajamangala Stadium) and Swiss-Thai Charyl Chappuis (who I am dubbing the Asian Cristiano Ronaldo, by virtue of his finely shaped eyebrows and copious amounts of hair gel to keep that 'do in place). To be optimistic that we could win against Thailand by virtue of their strikers unavailable for the return leg was painfully short-sighted. It was Thailand's midfield that controlled and dominated the game.
Moreover, about half of Thailand's line-up were carryovers from the U23s, which makes it a strong case for developing local talent.
When I look back at the year that was, I remember being optimistic with a new coach at the helm, young players brought into the fold, and a more attractive, possession-based, passing game. It just seemed to be the foundations to get the silverware that we longed for. Along the way, that optimism has waned for one reason or another (let's not go there).
If this was the plot of a story, this feels like the denouement already. As for the conclusion---that is too early to say, following a tournament that left us all believing and ending up in the same place as we were before. Will there be swan songs and fresh starts? Part of me hopes so.
Looking forward to the next chance for us to prove that we are even better than ourselves.