The Philippines has been drawn to play Thailand and Vietnam in a daunting Group A in the 2012 Suzuki Cup.The Philippines are up against host Thailand and top-ranked Vietnam.
The Azkals will deal with a boisterous home crowd of over 60,000 at Bangkok's Rajamangala stadium on November 24 when they take on the host team. Then three days later, a rematch of 2010's Miracle in Hanoi as the Philippines dukes it out with Vietnam.
On the last day of November the Azkals will square off with the winner of the qualifying group. Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Timor Leste, and Brunei Darussalam will play a round-robin qualifier in October. Based on current form, Myanmar is overwhelmingly favored to top that group and meet the Azkals in Bangkok.
Group B comprises of host Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and the runner-up of the qualifying league.
The top two from each group will play a home-and-away series in the crossover semifinals.
Ironically, the Philippines has played friendlies recently with all of the teams who are sure of playing in Group B, while we haven't played a recent game with either Vietnam or Thailand.
In some ways, the draw could not have gone worse for the Philippines. I was hoping to get drawn into the Malaysia group, for the simple reason that we have tied Malaysia twice in recent months, so there is no great reason to fear them, even though they are the defending champs.
Thailand will be a different customer. They have won this event three times and have figured in five of the eight finals. The War Elephants are currently ranked 135th in the world by FIFA, seventeen places above the Philippines. They recently played against Australia twice in World Cup qualifying and lost by a goal each time. They also narrowly lost to Norway, 1-0 in a friendly last January on home soil.
Our last game against Thailand was in the 2007 AFF Championship ( there was no title sponsor that year) in Bangkok, a 4-0 defeat, with the Thais scoring three times in the first 28 minutes. It might have been 5-0 had Michael Louie Casas not saved a penalty.
Things might be different now, but for sure it will be a tough test for the Azkals. Coach Michael Weiss will match wits against countryman Winfred Schafer. Weiss will need a game plan that neutralizes Sarayuth Chaikamdee and Teerasil Dangda. The two strikers have struck for a combined 50 goals in international play.
The last Pinoy to score against a Thai team was Chieffy Caligdong, who slipped in a goal in a meaningless final group game in 2004, when both teams had been eliminated from semifinal contention. The Philippines led 1-0 on that goal but succumbed to a 3-1 loss. Caligdong has not scored in the final stages of an ASEAN Football Federation championship since that day.
The Vietnam game will be historic. The Viets will need absolutely no extra motivation to seek revenge on the Azkals after the shocking 2-0 defeat in My Dinh in December 2010. At 120th place, Vietnam is the highest ranked ASEAN team in the FIFA rankings.
If Myanmar does top the qualifying group, as many expect, then we will meet them on November 30. My dark horse to win the qualifiers is Timor Leste, who trotted out a startlingly competitive squad in the SEA Games and could pull some surprises.
The order of the games for the Philippines is also pretty nasty. We play the home team first, then a team that wants us bad, then a qualifier. For sure, had we been scheduled in the reverse order, we could expect the team to build confidence with every game. Instead we are thrown to the lions from the outset.
But in reality, there was no way of avoiding a difficult group stage. All teams in the ASEAN region are improving every day. The draw seems unkind, but the unpredictability of sport may mean it won't matter.
A draw against Thailand will keep us in contention until the final group game no matter what the result of the second game. Will Weiss take a cautious, defensive approach in the first game or unleash an aggressive attack?
The team will have to prepare for a tough, tough tournament. But hope springs eternal for all Azkals fans.
One thing is for sure: It's time to book flights and hotels for Bangkok.