The Philippine Azkals look to finally bag the elusive AFF Suzuki Cup crown to close out the year.
But they have to go through Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, and the winner of the play-off between Timor Leste and Brunei Darussalam to do so.
And for Azkals head coach Scott Cooper, they won’t let their guards down despite having a somewhat favorable draw.
“I think as far as the draw goes, it’s an interesting one. I never want to say I’m pleased with the draw, but I’m not disappointed with the draw,” said Cooper.
He added, “I think we take it how it is, and ironically the last time we played in the Suzuki Cup, we had Singapore; Timor-Leste, who could be there; and Thailand, with the only difference is Indonesia, which is in the other group.
“It’s almost like a replay of 2018. It’s an interesting one.”
Back in 2018, the Philippines was slotted with Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Timor Leste.
The Azkals ended in second place after the group stages with eight points due to a 2-2 card. The Philippines eventually saw itself knocked off by Vietnam in the knockout semis, agg. 2-4.
Except for Brunei, the other four nations have previous clashes with the Philippines in recent memory.
Notably, Singapore and Thailand knocked the Filipinos in the 2012 and 2014 editions of the tournament. Then during the Michael Weiss era, goals from Phil Younghusband and Angel Guirado were enough to defeat Myanmar in the group stage nine years ago.
“You have to look at Thailand as the strongest team in the group, and Singapore are always well organized, and Myanmar always has talent. And you have both Brunei DS and Timor-Leste – two teams that will fight,” added the 51-year-old mentor.
At this stage, it is too early to set expectations considering the situation is still fluid due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s edition will take place in a centralized venue from December 5 until January 1. This is not part of the prescribed FIFA calendar dates meaning that professional clubs are not obliged to release players for international duty.
Nevertheless, Cooper is only looking to control the things he can control and his focus is already geared towards the action on the pitch. With time of the essence, the preparation to finally bring home Southeast Asia’s most coveted football prize starts now.
“We learned that against Timor-Leste in the last Suzuki Cup, they were really well-coached. They pressed us and we narrowly escaped that game with a 3-2 win,” he said. “I don’t think you can treat any team lightly. For sure, Thailand will be the top team in the group you can expect that from them.
“It’s interesting for me because I know Thailand so well and the players too.”