BLOG: Rise of the Azkals
Philippines are through to the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-finals with a game to spare.
A dominant 4-1 triumph over Laos in their tournament opener at the weekend was followed by a stunning 4-0 win over Indonesia on Tuesday, when they completely dominated their traditionally more-illustrious opponents.
They will top their table as long as they avoid defeat against Vietnam in Friday’s final Group A encounter.
Here's why the Philippines should no longer be underestimated by their south-east Asian rivals.
1) FITTER THAN EVER
Before Thomas Dooley was appointed as coach, the Azkals - or "Street Dogs" - regularly had problems seeing out the entire match.
Especially during the reign of Michael Weiss, several players looked overweight and often struggled to last 90 minutes. The former German coach’s direct style of play didn't flatter them too.
However, any lingering doubts over the Philippines’ fitness have been emphatically dispelled after back-to-back victories.
The Azkals were full of running right up to the final whistle, and were able to capitalise as their opponents began to tire. They netted half of their eight goals in the final half-hour.
2) NO MORE SUPERSTAR SYNDROME
After Europe-based stars Stephan Schrock and Dennis Cagara withdrew from the team following a rift with Dooley, many believed the Philippines would struggle without their two key players.
But the team stood by Dooley, and they are beginning to reap the rewards. At the moment, they look a well-rounded side with solid contributors all around.
The likes of Phil Younghusband and Patrick Reichelt might have earned plaudits for their goal-scoring feats in the opening two games, but players such as Jerry Lucena, Simone Rota and Manny Ott have been equally influential.
While they may not have as many stars as Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia, they are proving to be greater than the sum of its parts.
3) RED-HOT PHIL-LI PEPPER
The younger of the two Younghusband brothers, Phil was subjected to much criticism, sometimes unfair, in the past.
His history as a former Chelsea youth player and his movie star good looks made him an easy target when things didn't go well. His record of only two goals in the Suzuki Cup, prior to this tournament, didn't look that impressive either.
But Dooley kept his faith in the Loyola Meralco Sparks striker and even handed him the captain’s armband in this campaign. So far, he has repaid his coach with two goals and three assists.
Blessed with excellent technique and a keen eye for goal, the 27-year-old is the perfect hitman to fire Philippines to glory.