Azkals to use doubters back in Philippines as motivation in AFF Suzuki Cup quest

Once regarded as minnows in Southeast Asian football, Philippines have established themselves as a real force in the region over the past decade or so.

Their record of four semifinal appearances in the past five editions of the AFF Suzuki Cup is one that is matched only by current champions Vietnam, 2018 runners-up Malaysia and record five-time winners Thailand.

- Win over Philippines would put Singapore on the brink of AFF semis
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It is fine company they find themselves amongst, which also makes it quite peculiar that the Azkals -- without even kicking a ball yet at Suzuki Cup 2020 having sat out the Match Day 1 action in Singapore in the five-team Group A -- are already being written off.

By their own back in Philippines.

Clearly bemused, Azkals coach Stewart Hall was the one to bring up their doubters in his pre-match press conference ahead of Wednesday's game against hosts Singapore, when ESPN suggested their recent record of reaching the last four should make them one of the competition's favourites.

"We realise, in Philippines, there are 'low expectations' of this squad," said Hall. "I remember very consciously how that was worded because that's a strange statement when you look at Philippines' history in this competition.

"I use that as motivation. I told the players that they're being written off with people saying we're just here making up the numbers.

"Me and the players have watched all the games so far and we haven't seen anything that we need to be scared off.

"Yes, there is still some uncertainty in player availability. One day, someone is coming (to join the team) but then the next day he's not. It's all a bit last minute.

"But we've got the players that we've got and only we ourselves will determine how we go. That's the motivation."

In fairness, it is not without reason that question marks have been asked about this Philippines outfit, with their trying preparations for the tournament factoring in.

Talismanic captain Stephan Schrock only joined up with the squad a few days earlier, while Hall confirmed on Tuesday that Japan-based centre-back Jefferson Tabinas will not be available despite being named in the squad.

On top of that, the Azkals do look to be in transition given this will be the first Suzuki Cup since 2004 that they will be without either of the famed Younghusband brothers James and Phil, whose emergence ignited the sport's profile in a country more usually obsessed with boxing and basketball.

The duo, which retired after leading Philippines to a maiden AFC Asian Cup appearance in 2019 as the team's two most-capped players of all time, was part of the side that first reached the Suzuki Cup semis for the first time ever in 2010.

That milestone resulted in the birth of "the Azkals spirit" -- a never-say-die attitude that is fitting given their nickname is derived from the local word for street dogs.

Curiously, Philippines may now need to tap on that once again and thrive as the underdogs. Even if their recent record suggests they are anything but.