Just as the Azkals have qualified for the semifinals of the Southeast Asian cup, key players are being called back to their clubs in Europe.
The national squad is now down to 18 players as it reaches a crucial stage in their the AFF (Asean Football Federation) Suzuki Cup bid.
Midfielder Patrick Strauss — who has been a lynchpin of the team throughout the tournament — is the latest player to leave the squad after being recalled by German second division club, Erzgebirge, just a day after the Philippines clinched a place in the semis last Sunday (November 25).
Because the cup’s knockout round is not covered by the international window, clubs are not compelled to release players for national team duties. For this reason, Daisuke Sato, Stephan Palla and Neil Etheridge have also returned to their clubs.
And now with midfielder Strauss gone, the Azkals are left with a mountain to climb as they prepare to face Vietnam next Sunday at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City.
Azkals captain Phil Younghusband said the team remained confident — even though they will be facing the only team that has yet to concede a single goal in the competition.
The morale of the Vietnam team is also flying high after they reached the final of the AFC Under-23 championship earlier this year. They also have the advantage of the supremely talented attacking midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai, who has already scored two stunning goals in the competition.
While the Azkals are no strangers at being underdogs in the competition — fittingly, ‘Azkal’ means ‘street dog’ — captain Phil Younghusband stressed the importance of making home advantage count.
“We should take confidence that we are at home in the first leg,” he said. “We have to make the most out of that home advantage. It’s important that we get a result so that we’ll have something to fight for in the second leg (in Hanoi on December 6).”
Head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson — the ex-England manager — does have some options to cover for the absence of Strauss and Sato against Vietnam. Defender Amani Aguinaldo is fit and could start alongside Alvaro Silva.
“We do have a lot of depth in the squad,” said Younghusband. “And when we have confidence in our abilities, anything is possible.”
Younghusband, who needed four stitches after he clashed heads with an Indonesian player in the team’s last match, is also fit for Sunday’s fixture.
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