BACOLOD - As the Philippine Azkals prepare for their toughest 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup opponent to date, one thing is foremost on their minds: how to break down the seemingly impenetrable defense of Vietnam.
The Vietnamese, one of the favorites of the tournament, topped Group A without conceding a single goal and face the Azkals on Sunday evening at Panaad Stadium in the first leg of their semifinal series. The match will be shown live on ESPN5 starting at 7:30PM.
For Azkals coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, becoming the first team to find the back of the net against their opponents presents an imposing challenge. It is also something that needs to be done if the Azkals wish to advance to the final for the first time in history.
"They have played very well," Eriksson said during the pre-match press conference at Panaad Stadium that was attended by predominantly Vietnamese media. "They have not conceded one goal. They are very good, organized, especially in defending, also attacking. It's difficult to score against them and it's difficult to make counter-attacks against them because they're always organized. We look forward to it. We know it's difficult but it's absolutely not impossible. I think we have respect for them but they should have respect for us as well. So we'll see what happens tomorrow."
Scoring in the semifinal of the Suzuki Cup is something that the Azkals have never done in three previous trips. Now would be a good time break that spell, not only because it's the only way to advance, but also because opportunities like this aren't guaranteed anymore, especially with many players getting up there in playing years.
"It has been mentioned amongst us players," said captain Phil Younghusband, who has fully recovered from the scalp wound he suffered against Indonesia, and who has been with the national side for 13 years now. "There's quite a few of us who just turned 30. A lot of those players have been with the national team for a while. I'd be telling a lie if I said we hadn't mentioned it.
"That's not playing on our minds. Our focus is on Vietnam and playing the game rather than the long term, what our futures will be. But it does motivate me knowing we've been here four times. It's about time we went a step further. For me we're using it as a motivation knowing that if we want to progress we have to go further than the semifinals now."
Vietnam's defense is as solid as a defense can be, and its players are very disciplined.
"They're very, very well-organized," Eriksson said. "They are very strong in counter-attacks. They win the ball neatly. They know what they're doing. I don't know how they're going to play tomorrow but I guess they're going to play more or less like those two games I saw."
For Younghusband, pulling off another miraculous feat against the Vietnamese like they did eight years ago in Hanoi would cement their place among the great Filipino football players. Yet he is fully aware of the difficult task that lies ahead.
After hosting Vietnam on Sunday, the Azkals travel to Hanoi for the second leg of the home-and-home series on December 6. Getting in as many goals as possible at home is an absolute must before venturing into hostile territory.
"We know about Vietnam. They haven't conceded. We know they get a lot of bodies behind the ball so it's very difficult. But for us we see that as a challenge. To score against Vietnam and be the first team in the competition to score against Vietnam. That's the challenge for us if we want to be remembered and if we want to be great players," said Younghusband.
"We have to score because if we don't there's a good chance we won't go through. We want to make sure we use the home advantage and try and be the first team to break down the Vietnam defense."