BACOLOD -- The top spot in Group B and a virtual ticket to the semifinals are at stake when the Philippines hosts defending champion and pre-tournament favorite Thailand at the resumption of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup Wednesday night.
The Azkals and the War Elephants currently have six points each and are the only unbeaten teams left in their group, although Thailand has the decided edge in goal differential after smashing Timor-Leste 7-0 and thumping Indonesia 4-2. The Azkals squeaked past Singapore 1-0 in Panaad Stadium last November 13 then had to settle for a 3-2 win over Timor-Leste last Saturday in Kuala Lumpur after conceding two late goals.
These contrasting results will serve as the back drop to this big match that will once again be held at Panaad Stadium. But for the War Elephants' coach Milovan Rajevac, past results mean nothing.
"It doesn't necessarily mean anything if you look at the goal difference of the previous matches of the national teams," said the 64-year-old Serbian, who took over the War Elephants early last year after stints with Qatar, Algeria and Ghana, through an interpreter. "Both teams have new coaches, both teams qualified for the Asian Cup, so it means that both teams are developing and they want to achieve a higher level in Asian football.
"It's a very important match for both teams. And the team that will win (Wednesday) will practically be in the semifinals, so I'm expecting a top match.
"We are expecting a tough match. Mr. (Sven-Goran) Eriksson is a great coach. We know each other from a long time ago. He knows what we are capable of. We are both experienced coaches and we've prepared our teams to do their best."
The match will air live starting at 7:30PM on ESPN5 with livestream on ESPN5.com and tv5.com.ph. A gamecast will also be available on ESPN5.com.
While Rajevac is quick to dismiss the results of previous matches, Eriksson wants his players to remember how they played in the second half of the Timor-Leste match, because he knows that such an effort, or lack thereof, just won't cut it against Thailand.
"If you want to be in a good mood, you look at the first half," said the Swede when asked about the result. "If you want to be in a bad mood you look at the second half. We have to play better than we did in the second half. If we don't do that we will not beat Thailand. But I'm convinced and I'm sure that we will play better.
"I'm quite sure if you ask any football supporter in this area of the world, Thailand is the favorite to win this group. I hope we can change that (Wednesday). If we can play good football then we have a really good chance. I'm very positive."
Team captain Phil Younghusband, who has played Thailand many times in the past, knows what they are up against.
"Two teams at the top of the group. We'll see if we can get a good result. It will give us confidence for the rest of the tournament. Thailand are a strong team. They've had a good start. No matter who they put out they've always got a strong team. We found that out in the past. But we're glad we were able to bring them out here to Bacolod."
The Philippines has never beaten Thailand, the top-ranked country in the region and two-time defending champion, in Suzuki Cup play. Its best result was a goalless draw in the home leg of the 2014 semifinals at the Rizal Football Stadium. Two years ago Thailand eked out a 1-0 decision in the group stage at the Philippine Sports Stadium, a result that knocked the Azkals out of the competition in front of a stunned home crowd.
But the new home-and-away format for the group stage has brought a new wrinkle to team's preparations, with constant travel now a major factor. And after eight days of hopping around Southeast Asia, teams have had to adjust their training schedules.
"The most important is eating, sleeping, resting and recovery," Eriksson said. "Very little training. We've spent much more time on airplanes and in airports than we have on the pitch. Once the tournament starts it's very difficult to have training sessions. But that's not an excuse. It's the same for everybody."
As if that weren't enough, the weather has also decided to join the fun. Tropical depression Samuel was forecast to dump rains on Negros island Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, possibly affecting the pitch at Panaad and forcing the teams to make adjustments.
"It's very difficult to predict, of course," Rajevac said. "But it's the same conditions for both teams. The team which is able to adapt quickly will be the better of these teams.
"Definitely the advantage of the Philippine team is playing the match at home. They know the environment and the ground. On the other hand, I've been with the team for one and a half years already so probably I know my players better. Mr. Eriksson just came here recently."
"It depends on how much the rain does come down," said Younghusband, who has played countless matches at Panaad and is familiar with the pitch. "The worse the conditions, the more it's a leveler. So I think the team that likes to play a bit more football, it can hinder them a bit. Sometimes you have to change the tactics and change the game plan depending on the weather conditions."