Boost for Lions as Azkals miss key men
Philippines must deal with long list of key absentees
Singapore have been handed a timely boost ahead of their Suzuki Cup opener against co-hosts Philippines tomorrow.
Because the Suzuki Cup is not played during a Fifa-sanctioned break, foreign clubs are not obliged to release players for the tournament and as a result, the Azkals will be missing a handful of key players.
These include first-choice goalkeeper Neil Etheridge who plays for League One's Walsall, centre back option Daisuke Sato who plays for Romania's Politehnica Iasi, and in-form Henan Jianye striker Javier Patino.
They will also have to do without free-scoring midfielder Patrick Reichelt, who is nursing an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
According to local media, the biggest worry is in defence, where Simone Rota (anterior cruciate ligament injury) usually dominates.
The Philippines will turn to an untested defender or a more experienced midfielder to partner 21-year-old Amani Aguinaldo at centre back.
World No. 124 Philippines have proven to be tough to beat in their rise to become Asean's top-ranked team for the first time, thanks to a sturdy defence helmed by Etheridge.
This quality has helped them secure creditable results in the Suzuki Cup, such as the 2-0 and 1-0 wins over traditional powerhouses Vietnam in 2010 and 2012 respectively, en route to the semi-finals.
They also made it to the last four in 2014, but as in the previous two editions, they failed to score in the home and away legs, and missed out on a spot in the final.
But, with the likes of Misagh Bahadoran, Mark Hartmann and Patino, things began to improve in the attacking third.
They have scored in all but one of their six "A" internationals against higher-ranked opponents this year, the highlights being a 3-2 win over North Korea in March and back-to-back victories over world No. 99 Kyrgyzstan.
It remains to be seen how they cope with the absence of Etheridge, Sato, Patino, Reichelt and Rota, who all played key roles in the Azkals' emergence, in this tournament.
"It's frustrating that the Suzuki Cup doesn't fall within international dates," said a disappointed Etheridge in an earlier statement.
"The experiences that I gained from that cup competition when I was younger were second to none, the atmosphere, the intensity and the teams pulling together to gain victory.
"The team have looked strong and resilient in the past games that I have played in. I know we still have some injuries but the squad have looked compact and together with a great changing room atmosphere, which plays a big part."
Philippine team manager Dan Palami was equally defiant when he told local newspaper Inquirer: "We cannot discount the team's ability to adjust and be resilient, especially when the stakes are high.
"Time and again, our team have shown that they can rise above adversity."