23 November 2016

About Thailand: Moving on from the Indonesia Game in the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup

Image credit:  AFF Suzuki Cup Official Site.

Something that one of the Fox Sports Asia commentators said whilst the Philippines-Indonesia was ongoing rather puts the Azkals’ performance in the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup in the right perspective. “Considering how many of their players,” or something to this effect, he said, “are playing out of position, the Philippines have not done badly at all.”

We haven’t, have we? Done badly, that is. The wealth of talent missing out for a variety of reasons is already well-documented; and quite significant, if I might add. Yet, despite the patched up feel to the current squad, we have managed to avoid defeat in our opening two matches and lie second in the table heading into the crucial final round of matches on Friday.

That we could have won – should have won – over Singapore in our opening game is a no-brainer, albeit our most instinctive finisher was deployed deeper as has been idiosyncratic of the Azkals under Thomas Dooley. We also rode our luck against plucky Indonesia who could so easily have come away from the Philippine Sports Stadium with all three points.

Moving on from this breathtaking if also somewhat tactically poor match, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of being second in the table but also with the unenviable task of having to fashion a win over defending champions Thailand in our final group match.

True, we have not done badly in the tournament so far; but in this statement we can also read what has basically been wrong with our campaign so far. That is, our team has also not played at the level that has earned it the highest FIFA ranking in the entire Southeast Asia.

For a team with an embarrassment of midfielders, we have curiously struggled – excepting the second half against 10-man Singapore – to consistently string together passes and have often been wasteful, if anything. We have also punted long aimless balls forward too often, strange at best when one considers that we do not have an aerial presence in the front line. Yes, even when Mark Hartmann is playing. That he has the height is there for all to see; it is in the will that he can be found wanting.

There are suggestions already in some quarters that Thailand, already through to the semi-finals and with players already anxious to see the end to what has been a long football season, may wish to freshen up and send in the second string against us. The Fox Sports Asia pundits were quick to point out that this may not necessarily mean safe passage for the Philippines, as these players are the ones trying to get into the first team and may play harder if just to impress Thai coach Kiatisuk Senamuang.

I did not see Thailand’s 4-2 victory over Indonesia. Who did? All Azkals fans were stuck in EDSA inching their way on to Bocaue at the time the match was being played.

But I did see Thailand’s less than impressive 1-nil victory over Singapore yesterday. So maybe the Lions did play with five across the back and four in midfield, leaving just Khairul Amri up by his lonesome to spearhead the attack. They were as negative as they were against the Azkals, but there are indeed many ways to skin a cat. Leicester City bored the rest of the English premiership playing similarly on the way to the title.

Thailand had only one really meaningful chance in the first half. The Azkals certainly created more when Singapore still had its full complement of players. In the second half, with a bit more composure, Singapore could have been 2-nil up over Thailand before Sarawut Masuk nodded what would ultimately be the winning goal late in the match.

Thailand, but naturally, bossed possession; and the shots statistics arguably flattered them. In truth, the goal aside, few of Thailand’s chances truly ruffled Singapore’s feathers. In other words, Thailand is beatable. They certainly had something of a jaded look against Singapore and none of the fluency we all saw in the 2014 edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup.

As for the Azkals, being “not bad” can go two ways. For football fans of my generation who never even thought the Azkals phenomenon was ever possible, hope does spring eternal. I am counting on our team finally coming good and finding its best form when it matters the most.

Iain Ramsay, for one has been something of an amputated appendage; he hangs there but has not been of much use. We all know he is capable of so much more. Mike Ott has looked lively but his touch has tended to desert him in tight spaces and has been reluctant to pull the trigger even in reasonably good positions. Even Stephan Schröck, for all his heroics against Indonesia, has been messy with his passing over the two matches.

The key, as though I need to say, is to play the eleven men of Thailand this Friday – not the reputation and certainly not the tiki-taka video shared gazillion times over social media. The Azkals must play with all the respect the defending champion deserves; but never with fear.

Football can be a cruel, cruel game; but it can also give birth to legends of courage and heroism to be told from generation to generation. The gods of football have been kind to our nation since 2010. Here’s hoping they will bless us again with another story this Friday that we shall all continue to talk about till we are all old and grey.

If things do not go our way, there is certainly plenty of comfort to be had in knowing that the next AFF Suzuki Cup is just two years away and that we have in our squad many youngsters who are being aged like fine wine.

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