Don’t take the rankings too seriously.
This, in a nutshell, was the stand of Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss in reaction to news that the Philippines had just achieved a highest-ever ranking of 143 in the latest FIFA work rankings.
“I think we should be happy that we improved our ranking in the last two years,” said the German mentor, “but we shouldn’t be over-obsessed with rankings. A ranking reflects the current status, not necessarily the strength of the team in general. Some teams choose not to play matches and then they automatically drop in the rankings.
“We played a lot of matches. We took advantage of that. We became stronger for sure, but look at Thailand, for example. They have six World Cup qualifiers under their legs, and they were just beaten very narrowly by Australia. They lost in the last minute, 2-1 only. I think that’s a very, very decent result. So with this experience and with the homefield advantage, we will have to be prepared.”
Owing to their relative inactivity, the Thais plummeted 13 notches to 152, or nine places below the Philippines, which is now the second highest-ranked country in Southeast Asia behind only Vietnam (138). Thailand beat Malaysia, 2-0, in a friendly played Wednesday night in Bangkok, but prior to that had played only seven matches this year.
The Azkals square off against the Thais on November 24 in their opening group match of AFF Suzuki Cup in Bangkok, a match that is sure to test just how worthy the Philippines is of its FIFA ranking. Three days later, Vietnam, still smarting from that 2-0 loss inflicted by the Azkals two years ago which launched Azkals-mania, will try to avenge that humiliating defeat fashioned out in front of a stunned hometown crowd of 80,000. Late qualifier Myanmar rounds up the Philippines’ group matches on November 30.
The top two teams from the group will advance to the semifinals.
“We will be well-advised to take it one match at a time,” Weiss said when asked about the team’s chances in the so-called Group of Death. “The first match will be crucial. It’s always good to start positively. It will be in front of probably a very excited crowd. That can work well for the home team but that can also weigh heavily on their shoulders. We’ll probably go a little bit more conservatively into the game and then see what they can offer, and then we’ll make adjustments in our game.
“It will be a very difficult match, but the team is strong and has made significant progress in the last three, four months.”
Weiss and the coaching staff have scouted the Thais, and make no mistake, this team is much better than their current ranking.
“I’ve seen their matches against Saudi Arabia, home and away, and Palestine, and they’re very quick in transforming from defense to offense. They have a no. 7 and their no. 10 is a top striker in the Southeast Asian region. All of their players are very quick and speedy and they have good experience.”
Thailand advanced to the third round of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, whereas the Philippines was eliminated by Kuwait in the second round. The Thais, though, failed to make it to the fourth round.
Of course, the Azkals would like nothing better than to reprise their magical 2010 run, where they came out of nowhere and advanced to the semifinals after that shocking win over Vietnam and an equally stunning last-minute draw with Singapore.
But top striker Phil Younghusband, who scored the second goal against Vietnam, knows the road will be much tougher this time.
“The element of surprise is no longer there,” he said. “In 2010 they didn’t know what to expect from us. But obviously now, with the success of the Azkals over the last couple of years, the other countries are well aware of what we can do and they’ll do their homework.”
Nonetheless, Younghusband, a national team fixture since 2005, likes the Azkals’ chances.
“I’m looking forward to playing the hosts in the first game. Certainly it’ll be a full stadium. I think with the players we have, we have every right to feel very confident. Of course, you need a little bit of luck in every competition. But if we work hard, with a little bit of luck I’m sure we’ll do well.”
Team captain Chieffy Caligdong also voiced guarded optimism, even as he feels the Azkals still can’t be considered favorites.
“Group of Death,” said the Air Force stalwart. “Nandiyan iyong Thailand, iyong Vietnam, Myanmar. We’re not underestimating the opponent. Lahat sila, siyempre gusto din ng panalo. Prepared naman iyong team. Very proud ako sa teammates ko. Iyong preparation naming mahaba.
“Underdogs pa rin kami. Pero siyempre huwag nila kami maliitin. Baka magulat sila.”
“We will be going in with good confidence and good results in the last two months going into the tournament,” said Weiss. “I see the group as equally strong. Even Myanmar cannot be underestimated. All four teams can make it to the semifinals. We need a little bit of luck.”
Should the Azkals again make it to the semifinals, they can rest assured that this time around, they will hold their home match on Philippine soil and avoid a repeat of the 2010 fiasco where the team was forced to play both semifinal matches in Jakarta since there was no suitable venue in the country.
“Syempre iba na ang 2010 Suzuki Cup sa 2012 Suzuki Cup,” Caligdong said. "Kung makapasok ulit kami sa semifinals, siguro iyong nangyari two years ago hindi na mauulit. The PFF will provide the home field para sa team. Hindi naman kami nag-aassume na makakapasok kami sa semifinals, pero may tiwala kaming lahat.”
The Azkals have one final tune-up game on November 15 in Cebu against Singapore, which the coaching staff will use to decide the final 22 players who will comprise the team in the group stage matches. Weiss expressed hope that Europe-based regulars Neil Etheridge and Stephan Schrock can join them.
“The team is in good condition right now,” Weiss said. “We have done our homework. We have another two weeks where we will work hard and then identify the final 22 members who will be representing the team in the first three matches. Hopefully our friends from Europe will be joining the team.”
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