As the Philippine Azkals prepare for their 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup semifinal series against Group A topnotcher Vietnam, they will have to do so with a rather thin roster.
Already undermanned for most of their group stage matches after losing defender Luke Woodland to a leg injury and seeing goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and midfielder Stephan Palla recalled by their respective club teams, the Azkals lost even more depth after defender Daisuke Sato and midfielder John Patrick Strauss also had to report for club duty just a day after they held Indonesia to a goalless draw in Jakarta that sealed their semifinal stint.
That leaves the team with just 18 players as they face a favored Vietnam side that has not conceded a single goal so far in the tournament. The first match of the two-leg series is set for December 2 at Panaad Stadium, while Vietnam will host the second leg on December 6 in Hanoi.
Sato's absence, in particular, will be huge, as the defender has done well with the rest of the back four in conceding just one goal in the last two matches. Still, the Azkals are upbeat, and hope to ride the momentum of a rather good run in the group stage.
"They (Vietnam) have a very good team, but we are good as well," said coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. "We are going to do everything we can to get two good results. We'll see. I think we deserve to be in the semifinal. Thailand won the group. They were very good but I think we were as good as they were."
"We have a decent squad," said midfielder Manny Ott. "We know we have some momentum going on after the Thailand game. There's definitely more to do for us."
The Azkals salvaged a draw with the two-time defending champion War Elephants last November 21 at Panaad after late substitution Jovin Bedic's equalizer in the 81st minute. They know they have to duplicate, if not surpass, their effort against Thailand if they wish to make the final for the first time ever.
"I think it's special for everyone," said goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard, who took over manning the posts after Etheridge left. "Right now we're unbeaten. I think we're in good shape. We're hard to beat. Right now we're in the semifinal and it's going to be tough."
The Azkals have made the semifinal in four of the last five editions of the tournament, but have never made the final. In fact, in six Suzuki Cup semifinal matches, they have not scored a single goal.
Forward Patrick Reichelt, who is in his fourth Suzuki Cup and third semifinal, said this 2018 team is different, and has shown a lot of character.
"There's a lot of communication on the pitch, a lot of encouragement," he said. "I think this year we have a good group."
The Azkals' two matches against Vietnam will be shown live on ESPN5 with livestream on ESPN5.com.