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Thomas Dooley must find right Azkals combination to seal Suzuki Cup glory

With the start of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup barely a month away, two consecutive 3-1 defeats in four days left Philippines' fans with more questions than answers.

The Azkals faced up to familiar foes Bahrain and North Korea in back-to-back friendlies, with head coach Thomas Dooley using the games to finalise his final squad.

Nurnberg II's Mike Ott was one of the few bright lights for the Azkals as he scored his debut goal. But an abject performance in the two friendlies has insiders concerned about the team's chances, even on home soil.

Dooley was asked to find some positives from the performances, and the long pause, and rueful smile. were telling.

"It's very difficult to find positives," Dooley told ESPN FC. "We had these games to see what went wrong."

More than the losses themselves, it was the manner in which the Azkals were defeated that is cause for concern. Whether due to fatigue or tactics, the usual fight of the team was missing.

Philippines
Thomas Dooley's Azkals will kick off their campaign against Singapore on Nov. 19.

There is a valid case to be made that these two friendlies provided Dooley with a chance to experiment. And by making the proverbial bad choices, he can now learn how to make better ones.

The former U.S. captain now has five weeks to make some crucial decisions.

Using Azkals all-time goal scorer Phil Younghusband, and playmaker Manny Ott, in deeper roles meant their influence in the attack was not as pronounced, with the two having to help out with defensive duties.

The idea was for Phil and Manny to use their superb ball distribution skills to set up attacks.

In theory, this made sense. But, in practice, their natural attacking instincts meant that they would naturally drift forward, leaving the defence exposed on quick counter attacks. 

This issue is two-pronged because when the back four did get the ball back, there was often no one nearby to pass the ball to, so they would usually have to resort to lumping long passes forward.    

Ceres defender Kevin Ingreso started both friendlies in the No. 10 role behind the striker. While he put in a good shift, it was no coincidence that the Azkals played better on both occasions when he was subbed off. Why not put either Manny or Phil in that position?

Phil Younghusband, Philippines, 2015
Thomas Dooley will rely heavily on the attacking instincts of Phil Younghusband at the Suzuki Cup.

Amani Aguinaldo has cemented his place in the starting 11, but the question is who will be his best partner in the heart of the Azkals' defence?

Luke Woodland was given two games to prove he is a worthy successor to the likes of strong centre-backs Aly Borromeo and Rob Gier. But his performances, especially against North Korea, left a lot to be desired.

Then there is the goalkeeping issue.

Patrick Deyto will make a strong claim for the starting berth as he has been in fine form, keeping 13 clean sheets in the 18 games of UFL champions, Global FC.

While coming from a perceived higher footballing pedigree overseas, Roland Mueller has not played competitively at club level for four months, which could count against his selection.

It is, however, not all gloom and doom in the Philippines' camp. The Azkals were missing several key players, with Daisuke Sato and Simone Rota the notable absentees.

Fatigue was evident from the players, especially those playing domestically. They will be given time off to recover after the UFL season ends this week.

That said, the clock is ticking for Dooley and the squad, but there is no panic within the camp.

"The two defeats are not a concern." Dooley told ESPN FC, "We don't have to panic. We had those games to see what we are doing wrong."

He, however, adds tellingly, "If the Suzuki Cup were tomorrow, then that performance would be a concern for me."

Fans would undoubtedly take setbacks in two October friendlies, rather than defeats in the November tournament. That said, the Azkals have to do more to convince fans that they have what it takes to win the Suzuki Cup for the first time.

After their opening game on Nov. 19 against Singapore, they will face Indonesia on Nov. 22 before ending the group stage against defending champions, Thailand, on Nov. 25.

Manila-based Ryan Fenix is football columnist for Sports5 Philippines and analyst for InterAksyon.com. He is also a FIFA Ballon d'Or juror.

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