Sven-Goran Eriksson has the Philippines living up to their street dog name
Talk to fans in the Philippines and they casually refer to the national team by their nickname of "The Azkals" -- the Tagalog word for street dogs.
The moniker is rather apt under new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, because the boys in white seem to be a little more streetwise and readier to bare their teeth.
On Wednesday, in the penultimate round of group games at the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, the Philippines hosted defending champions and regional top dogs Thailand. The home team may have only earned a late point from a deflected shot, that then hit the post and was somehow bundled in by the goalkeeper, but it was a deserved point. It should probably have been more.
Thailand, with a goal difference of plus nine from the first two games, did not enjoy the 90 minutes in the city of Bacolod. The Philippines were in their faces and, with a tactical foul or two, were happy to break up any rhythm that the Thais tried to establish.
The War Elephants, so used to getting their own way in Southeast Asia, were noticeably annoyed. Not only were the Thais unable to play their usual slick passing game, they were in danger of losing their cool and losing a player or two given some of their challenges. In the end, they were relieved to head back to Bangkok with a point after their worst performance for some time.
Driven on the impressive Stephan Schrock, restored to his influential role in the team after the well-documented fall-out with former boss Thomas Dooley and the busy Manny Ott, the Azkals were snapping at the visitors' heels. The only downside would be that the team did not win with perhaps a regret that they could have put more men in the area on the numerous occasions they had the ball in promising attacking positions.
"We have played very well for 90 minutes and we performed better in this match," Eriksson said after the game. "A draw doesn't matter, even though we can actually win this fight. I think we played well against a strong team. If we play like that against Indonesia, we will qualify for the semifinals. I think this is our best performance."
So far then, so good for the Philippines who reached three successive semifinals from 2010 to 2014 but then crashed out of the group stage two years ago despite playing on home soil. The opening 1-0 win over Singapore was the result of a well-organised and disciplined performance. The subsequent 3-2 victory against Timor Leste was a great deal closer than it should have been given the two late goals conceded. Perhaps it was the wake-up call needed.
Now being second in the group, behind Thailand only on goal difference, a point in the final game in Jakarta will be enough. It is a good position to be in. Indonesia are already out and have nothing to play for, so the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium will now be a much less scary proposition. Even if the Philippines lose, Singapore, currently in third, would need to get a point in Bangkok against a Thai team that is also is in need of points to be sure of progression.
The Azkals, then, go to Indonesia full of confidence. Perhaps this is the difference Eriksson makes? The Swede, appointed late last month and with little knowledge of the country, its football scene and the region, must surely be relying heavily on his assistant Scott Cooper. But having such a famous and experienced coach in charge does seem to have injected some confidence into the team.
In the past, Southeast Asian teams have not exactly rolled over against Thailand, but have expected to come out second best. The Philippines approached the match full of belief and aggression and did not give the champions too much respect. That is an attitude that should take the team into the last four.
Indonesia, on the other hand, have not impressed in the tournament. Preparations were not ideal with their Spanish coach Luis Milla failing to report for duty in early November despite his contract extension in August. It was asking a lot for number two Bima Sakti to step up and he has admitted that he has made mistakes. It is fair to say that errors have been a feature of the games so far. Fans have not been forgiving.
Merah Putih are an unpredictable team and now the pressure is off, then there is always the chance of a solid performance but with fans unhappy and players not looking much better, it is likelier that the Azkals will get what they need.
Then comes a likely clash with Vietnam which would be fascinating. The Philippines announced their arrival on the regional scene eight years ago by beating the Golden Stars -- then defending champions -- in front of 40,000 stunned fans in Hanoi. Fans in the archipelago will be dreaming of something similar. But first, Indonesia awaits.