The youthful Philippine men’s national football team hope to finish their 2022 AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup group stage match on a high note with a home match next week, then let the chips fall where they may as they still have a mathematical but very slim chance of advancing to the semifinals of this biennial regional event.
The Azkals will limp home after absorbing a 0-4 loss to defending champions Thailand in their Group A match Monday night in Bangkok, and will have a week to prepare for Indonesia in their last group stage match on Jan. 2 at the Rizal Football Stadium, where they thrashed Brunei, 5-1, last week.
The Philippines is not yet officially eliminated from competition, but it will take a minor miracle to see them advance to the knockout rounds for the first time since 2018. The War Elephants and the Merah Putih, as expected, lord it over Group A with six points apiece, with the two sides clashing on Dec. 29. Meanwhile, Cambodia, which stunned the Azkals on opening day, have three points and have yet to face Thailand and group doormat Brunei.
Only the top two teams will advance to the semifinals, and even if the Azkals beat the Merah Putih next week, they have to do so by as many goals as possible while also hoping that Cambodia is upset by Brunei and Thailand beats Indonesia. As things currently stand, Indonesia’s goal differential is +8, while Cambodia is 0, and the Azkals are a -1.
Against the War Elephants, things fell apart quickly for the Azkals, who conceded a goal just three minutes in courtesy of a brilliant header from the ageless striker Teerasil Dangda.
“Going down 1-nil in the opening minutes, it destroyed everything,” said team captain Stephan Schrock in a post-match interview. “Obviously there were errors made but we knew that Thailand will force us to defend very deep and we had to be disciplined throughout the entire game and that we would not having a lot of possession in this game. We knew all of that before. It didn’t work out the way we wanted it.”
Schrock has no illusions about the challenges faced by this new version of the Azkals, many of whom are 25 and below and making their senior team debuts. The team’s new coach Josep Ferre also belatedly joined them, barely a week before the competition.
“Obviously we want to finish strong at our home game with a win if possible given that we have a very, very young team. What most people don’t know is that the players, this is not just the build-up to the tournament. You see the result, you see the performance, but this goes deeper into the football. The league, the struggling, the players they carry a big, big weight throughout the entire year. And it’s all not shiny as people might expect.”
After a breakthrough performance in the 2010 edition of this tournament, the Azkals made the semifinals three times in five stagings. But with the national program rebooting following the retirement of several veterans and an unstable coaching situation for most of the year, the team was not expected to make waves in this year’s tournament.
Photo credit: FA Thailand