Defending champions Malaysia meet three-time champions Thailand and former winners Singapore take on fast-improving Philippines in the semi-final first legs of the AFF Suzuki Cup this weekend as South-East Asia’s leading tournament builds to a crescendo.
Malaysia, following a similar path to 2010 when they bounced back from losing their opening group game to lift the title with a 4-2 aggregate victory over Indonesia in the final, play Thailand at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur on December 9 with the return leg on December 13 at Bangkok’s Supachalasai Stadium.
Singapore, like Thailand three-time champions, travel to Manila for the first leg on December 8 at the Rizal Memorial Stadium and host the Philippines at the Jalan Besar Stadium on December 12.
Malaysia had a poor build-up to the tournament as they failed to win their last four warm-up games before they slumped to a 3-0 loss to Singapore in their opening match in Group B.
However, they got back to winning ways with an emphatic 4-1 triumph over Laos and they carried their momentum through to their crunch showdown against Indonesia as goals by Azamuddin Akil and Mahalli Jasuli gave them the win that sent them through to the last four clash against Thailand.
“We had confidence from our game against Laos and we picked up from there,” said coach K. Rajagobal.
“It is possible that the best is yet to come because once the confidence is there, the momentum is different. When they are enjoying themselves, the flow will be there.
“The most important thing is for our players to recharge themselves for our match against Thailand.”
Coach Winfried Schafer believes that Thailand can beat Malaysia in the two-legged semi-final if they reproduce the form that saw them top Group A with wins over the Philippines (2-1), Myanmar (4-0) and Vietnam (3-1).
“Malaysia are a good team,” he said. “They have good teamwork and a good passing game.
“It will not be easy for our team to beat them. When their supporters get behind them in a full-house stadium, the Malaysians play to their full potential
“However, if there are no injuries and the players can reach the heights of the first round, I think we will be the more dangerous team.”
Singapore topped Group B thanks to a nervy 4-3 victory over Laos in their final game and coach Radojko Avramovic said that The Lions would probably cope better with the physically strong Filipinos than the small-built Laotian players.
“The Philippines style of play is very physical but it will probably suit us more,” said the Serbian.
“Their style of play is not a South-East Asian style. It’s very physical and they have different types of movement going forward.”
The Philippines’ reward for finishing second in Group A is a first-ever home match in the AFF Suzuki Cup, a prospect that has thrilled the players.
Two years ago the Azkals were forced to forfeit home advantage in their semi-final with Indonesia as there was no suitable venue in the country.
They played both legs of the semi in the intimidating atmosphere of Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, twice losing 1-0.
James Younghusband, a key member of the 2010 and 2012 squads, said that they had achieved their aim of bringing football back to the Philippines.
“It is brilliant for Philippine football that we have qualified for the semis…the whole team is ecstatic. We lost the opening game (2-1 against Thailand) but bounced back really strong and showed some real team spirit,” he said of the 1-0 victory over Vietnam and the 2-0 defeat of Myanmar that sealed a spot in the last four.
“We are very happy that we get to bring international football back to the Philippines and get to play in our home stadium.
“We have grown as a team in the last two years and a lot of credit goes to the management and the supporters back home. There is more interest in us (and we have responded). We just needed that dream journey in 2010 to pave the way.
“I am looking forward to the game at Rizal. There will be a full house and I think that will give us the extra boost we need to really push forward and play some good football.”