BACOLOD - With a world-famous coach, homefield advantage, and fresher legs, the Philippine Azkals plunge into action against a Singapore side that is coming off an inspiring win over Indonesia as the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup get underway Tuesday night in this football-mad city.
It will be an intriguing match-up between the Azkals, now guided by the legendary Sven-Goran Eriksson, and the Lions, who arrived just three days after booking the full three points at home with a thrilling 1-nil decision against Indonesia, at the iconic Panaad Stadium.
Both sides are also eager to erase the memory of their forgettable stints in the 2016 edition of the biennial event, considered the regions premier football tournament, which saw them crash out of the group stage with the Azkals managing just two points and the Lions only one.
Singapore coach Fandi Ahmad, back in Bacolod for the first time since the 2005 Southeast Asian Games when he was an assistant coach, has seen Philippine football grow exponentially since then, and he knows very well that the Azkals are dangerous opponents.
"If you see the FIFA rankings, we are far away from the Philippines (116 vs. 165)," Ahmad said. "They have improved through the years. Hopefully this time we have more committed players and a disciplined team to fight for a slot in the next stage."
Ahmad also acknowledges that his team might be a little banged up following just three days of rest, but he believes their earlier time on the pitch can work to their advantage.
"During our training, some of the players were still very lethargic, very tired. Hopefully they've had a good rest. It won't be easy. But I think the advantage will be for us because we have played. We know the pressure. They had a longer rest but I hope mentally and physically we have the edge.
"The Philippines, they play a different style of football. They keep a lot of possession. If they keep possession in their half they are very deadly. We have to pressure them."
Ahmad also knows that he will be matching wits with one of the sport's best-known coaches.
"I respect him (Eriksson). It's an honor for me to compete against his team. He's a world-class coach. The advantage for us is we know each other. He may not have enough time to prepare his team."
Eriksson took over the Azkals just a few weeks ago. He is still getting acquainted not just with his own players, but with the region as well. But he has seen enough of the Lions to know that they cannot be taken lightly.
"You have to show them a lot of respect because they beat Indonesia and they deserved to win. They have two good strikers and they have some fast players. They're playing a very direct, good football. We have to play very well to win that game. I have a lot of respect for Singapore.
"I know that they have a good team. I was impressed by Singapore when I saw them on TV. It's going to be a tough game. Of course it's a new experience for me. I'm excited and looking forward to it."
Suzuki Cup legacy
One person who has a rich experience in this competition, and who knows its historical significance, is Azkals skipper Phil Younghusband, who will be playing in his 100th match with the national team, and who is one of just three players who were there eight years ago when they pulled off a shocker in Vietnam during the 2010 edition.
"We're all very excited for the game," Younghusband said. "The Suzuki Cup means a lot to Philippine football. You could say that this is the competition that made our kababayans aware of the team. It's a tournament that means a lot so you know we'll be playing with a lot of emotion. But we're also playing with a lot of confidence because we have a lot of good, quality players and we have good management, so we're really looking forward to the game."
Younghusband has been through three different national team coaches since their storied 2010 run, but this time he has reason to be doubly excited.
"I was a 15-year-old boy in England watching Sven manage England," he said, referring to Eriksson's stint with the Three Lions whom he led to two World Cup quarterfinal appearances. "With his track record, he's one of the best managers in the world, so to have him here in the Philippines, everyone is very proud and honored. It's good to speak to Sven one-on-one, and when he speaks to the team, he gives us good information to help the team learn and grow."
The Azkals, though, suffered a minor blow after forward Javier Patino, perhaps their best finisher, was ruled out for the Singapore match with an injury. Younghusband realizes what his absence could mean.
"You're always gonna miss important players that bring a lot to the team. Javi is a good player that brings a lot to the team. When you are missing those players you can lose a bit of confidence. But we have a good squad. We will miss him and we hope he recovers quickly, but the most important thing is we have him for the long term. Hopefully he can have good treatment and be back as soon as possible. We have my brother, we have Patrick Reichelt who can also play on top, we've got Schrocky, we've got myself."
But whoever the Azkals send onto the pitch on Tuesday, the team will enter the match with heightened expectations simply because of the man who will patrol the sidelines.
"When you're bringing in someone of Sven's experience and coaching caliber expectations will rise and naturally people will expect results right away," Younghusband said. "Hopefully we can live up to those expectations and get the result everyone's so craving."