Another 90 Minutes More (Philippines v Singapore - 2012 Suzuki Cup Semis)

After a pretty good group stage performance against tough opponents, the Philippine Men's National Football Team a.k.a. The Azkals have once again made it to the semi-final round of the AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia's most prestigious football tournament. For the 3rd time this year the Azkals face Singapore, though this time in a competitive 2-legged fixture with a lot at stake - a place in the finals.

This semi-final first leg was also billed as the "home match that never was" in reference to the missed opportunity of our country to host our national team for the home leg of our semi-final fixtures against Indonesia in 2010. Well, our boys finally made it happen and created this opportunity to play in front of the supporters and the fans. Rizal was nearly packed and everyone at the stadium was eager to relish this opportunity to support our boys on this momentous occasion in Philippine football.

The match ended in a scoreless draw after a forgettable first half where the Philippines were clearly outplayed by Singapore and they couldn't get any semblance of an offense going. As it was in the group stages, our defense has been the most positive aspect of this Suzuki Cup campaign so far. There were a few nervy moments but over-all our defense held firm and as it was in the group stage, goalkeeper Ed Sacapano proved pretty steady between those goalposts. It was a much better performance by the Azkals in the second half, exhibiting improved cohesion and fluidity in their offensive game. It wasn't enough to get a goal and they had better step it up in the second leg if they wish to go further in this tournament. On a positive note, the Azkals managed another clean sheet, their third in this tournament. More importantly, this means that the Philippines had denied Singapore an away goal.

Of course, a win and a definite advantage heading into the second leg would have been the ideal result, considering the team was playing in front of its home fans. That would have been an ideal result and a good gift to the supporters considering how long Philippine fans and supporters have been waiting for a moment like this, given the significance of the fixture. Then again, Singapore is no push over. They have experience, are 3 time champions of this tournament and have been in this situation before. So if a win wasn't possible, a scoreless draw is the next desirable result.

This is the beauty of 2-legged home and away fixtures with the away goals rule in effect. It creates various scenarios and raises many factors, making for some very interesting matches. The result of the first match will most likely influence the tactics, strategy and approach to the second match and it's quite fascinating to see how coaches, players and teams deal with the situation.

At the end of the match both coaches seem pleased with the result. Singapore is looking forward to playing at home, confident that with the support of their fans they will be able to beat the Azkals and advance to the finals. While the Philippines may be playing on "hostile" ground in the second leg, we only need a scoring draw to advance due to the away goals rule, which Singapore failed to secure in the first leg. As things stand, the Philippines is still very much in it.

In this type of fixture, the 2nd leg at home is usually favored by a team which is why those who topped the group stage get to play the second leg at home. However, it could get difficult and a team could find itself under greater pressure if things don't go as planned. All it will take is an early goal for the Philippines and Singapore will suddenly find itself under pressure to score 2 goals to stay in the competition. As 3 times winners, Singapore has the added factor of dealing with the expectations of their supporters. Also, even if Singapore gets to score first, they cannot take it easy. An equalizer from our team and they are headed for the exit once more.

Singapore will need to go out for the win. This will enable the Philippines to be patient, to stay compact in defense and try to take advantage on the counter. Singapore will be obliged to push up and attack, and what I am starting to envision in my mind is that second goal in the Myanmar match by Angel Guirado. Score first and preferably score early and things should look good for the Philippines. Of course, in order to do this they need to play with more energy and precision than they did on Saturday night. Then again, I'm sure they know that by now.

Singapore will be relying on their experience (coach, players) in this competition, their quality, better cohesion and the support of the home crowd. It is a daunting challenge for the Azkals to face. Then again, the Azkals merely need a scoring draw to advance to the finals. They could use this to their advantage. Furthermore, the Azkals are a mere 90 minutes away from achieving another milestone not only in their respective careers, but for Philippine football as well. As Dan Palami so eloquently put it, "the Philippines intend to write its own history." The opportunity for both the veterans and young guns in our team to write themselves into the history books once more and build a legacy will be a strong source of motivation that should help them overcome the challenges they will face this coming Wednesday. 

This Suzuki Cup campaign has shown that the Philippines is a second half team. It takes a while for the Azkals to get going, to get their bearings and start stamping their mark in the match. In the friendly against Singapore in Cebu and in the 3 group stage matches, the Azkals scored all their goals in the second half. The quality of their play improves as the match progresses in the second half. A 2- legged fixture is basically a match of 2 halves and the second 90 minutes kicks off on Wednesday. So come on Philippines, let's go Azkals, you are 90 minutes away from achieving further glory - WE BELIEVE!

10 December 2012, Moira G Gallaga©