Crunch Time: Azkals vs Singapore preview

Cagara and Reichelt. Image copyright Bob Guerrero.

It's been an extraordinary 2012 for the Azkals. On Saturday night, it could get even better when the Philippines hosts Singapore in Game 1 of their AFF Suzuki Cup semifinal two-legger.

As of the writing of this blog, only tickets in the green bleachers and blue bleachers of Rizal Memorial were still available. A fiesty crowd should fire up the home team.

It will be the third time that the teams meet since September, when the Azkals won 2-0 in Singapore. Last month the Lions fell 1-0 in Cebu.

Those results are probably meaningless at this point. As my friend and Football pundit Joel Dabao says, "Singapore played those friendlies like friendlies and we played them like they were World Cup games."

[ALSO READ: Phil Younghusband: I would be happy with a clean sheet and a win]

For all we know, whatever Singapore did in the two friendlies was little more than smoke and mirrors.

I wouldn't be surprised if Singapore mentor Raddy Abramovic tries to throw us a curve with some never-before seen tactics or personnel moves.

Can the Philippines gun down Singapore three times in a row? They will be glad that most of their top guns will suit up for coach Michael Weiss.

Angel Guirado and Dennis Cagara have been released by their club teams and will be available to play. Paul Mulders is also good to go.

Mulders. Image copyright Bob Guerrero.

There will be no Roland Muller in goal so Ed Sacapano will continue to wear the gloves.

The Army keeper has shone recently, with a big save late in the Vietnam game that preserved the 1-0 victory. But kudos must go out to the Rob Gier-marshalled back four, which has done a terrific job of giving Sacapano as little work as possible.

Jerry Lucena will miss this Saturday's match but will jet to Singapore for the second leg. We'll likely see Jason De Jong beside Paul Mulders in the center of the midfield.

Ray Jonsson has recovered from his injuries. It remains to be seen whether he or Carli De Murga gets the nod at right back.

The Azkals will need their A-Game against a Singapore team that has regained its moxie. This is a squad that has shown admirable character in the group stage.

[ALSO READ: Angel Guirado: Semifinal won't be easy but we are confident]

In their first game Singapore took on Malaysia in front of a massive and hostile crowd in Kuala Lumper's Bukit Jalil stadium. Thanks to an exquisite goal by Lions skipper Shahril Ishak, a goalkeeping howler by Khairul Fahmi, and absentee defending that allowed Aleksandar Duric to score unmolested, Singapore took a 3-0 win back over the causeway.

Then Singapore fell 1-0 to Indonesia thanks to some atrocious refereeing that gave a soft free kick outside the penalty area. Andik Vermansyah spotted Singapore keeper Izwan Mahbud off his line and surgically lofted it under the crossbar.

In the final group game the Lions fell 2-0 down to Laos. With their tournament life hanging by a thread, Singapore sprung into action, devouring the Laotian defense as if it was a platter of Hainanese Chicken Rice, firing in four unanswered goals before a late Laos penalty.

That 4-3 win allowed Singapore to top the group over Malaysia on goal difference.

Shahril Ishak has been magnificent for Singapore in this competition. The attacking midfielder has scored four times, the finest one his strike against Laos, where he made a lightning-fast turn that gave him just enough wriggle room to beat the Laotian goalie.

Jason De Jong being chased by Shaiful Esah (3) and Sharil Ishak (17), Image copyright Bob Guerrero.

At 28 years old, Ishak is in his prime. He has shown an uncanny ability to control awkward balls in the air and then coax them past opposing keepers. He is so well-regarded that Indonesian club Medan Chiefs reportedly paid US$380,000 for one season of his services.

The key match-up in this game could be Ishak against the Philippine centerbacks, Juani Guirado and Rob Gier.

But the visitors will be missing a pair of key players in the midfield. Hariss Harun is lost for the tournament with a fractured shin. Shi Jiayi won't make the trip. The naturalized Chinese has rushed back to his native Shanghai for an unspecified family emergency.

Raddy Abramovic will know soon enough how deep his bench is. Meanwhile the Philippine midfield of Mulders, De Jong, James Younghusband and perhaps Patrick Reichelt will have a good opportunity to impose their will in the center of the park without the two Singaporean starters.

Singapore is deadly in set pieces, with Shaiful Esah dangerous with his left foot and Khairul Amri scoring on a sensational free kick against Laos from 30 meters out.

One key for the Azkals: do not allow a goal in Rizal Memorial. This is an aggregate-goals two game series, with away goals serving as the tiebreaker if the teams finish the second leg on December 12 level.

If total goals and away goals are the same after the Singapore leg on the 12th, then the matchup goes to extra time and if necessary, penalties.

Saturday night could be the Azkals' sternest test of the year. A Suzuki Cup home game two years in the making. A chance to bring Pinoy Football to uncharted waters and unimagined glory.

Lets hope that a huge crowd won't go home disappointed.

Tune into the game on Saturday, December 8 on AKTV on IBC. Coverage begins at 7:30pm, kickoff at 8pm. Follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.