CEBU, Philippines - Philippine Azkals team manager Dan Palami is highly optimistic that the national team will eventually make its first finals appearance, if not win a historic title, when the country co-hosts the Asian Football Federation (AFF) Championships also known as the Suzuki Cup this November.
'We are aiming for the finals. We need to do better than what we did in the last three editions. It's always been the semifinals, but we've never been to the finals. So, we'll take it one step at a time. If we go to the finals, then it's a big achievement for us. But of course, we always aim for the title everytime we play. Let's see," said Palami in an interview with sportswriters at Shangrila's Mactan Resort and Spa in Lapu-Lapu City yesterday.
With most of the Azkals already in the country playing under different clubs in the United Football League (UFL), Palami said reaching the finals is achievable.
'Most of the players are Philippine-based now. It's a big help to them in terms of conditioning," he said.
In their last three of 11 appearances in the biennial event, the Azkals could only make it to the last four. In 2010 held in Bangkok, they were ousted by Indonesia via a 1-0 decision. They suffered the same beating at the hands of Singapore in 2012 and were trounced by Thailand, 3-0, two years ago.
This year, the Azkals will co-host the tournamernt for the first time.
Making the Azkals more upbeat in their quest for a landmark finals entry is the presence of young guns in their lineup in the mold of Juan Luis Guirado, Paul Mulders, and Jerry Lucena.
'I think a lot of the young players have shown a lot of promise. Not just potential, but they are actually playing well. Players like Manny Aguinaldo has shown to be a good replacement in the central defender position. The departure of some veterans have motivated the young bloods to step up," said Palami.
'Medyo balanced ang team ngayon. We just have to work on the depth of the bench.Kasi after Manny, we'll have to look for somebody who can play for that position or maybe an even stronger player.'
After a two-week rest, the Azkals gears up for several friendly matches. Next month, they will tackle Australia's Perth Glory in Vigan, Ilocos Sur.
In August, the Azkals, who slipped to 120th in the world rankings, will take on Kyrgyzstan at the latter's turf. On its way to Kyrgyzstan, Palami revealed, they might face North Korea also for tune-up in Beijing, China instead of Singapore's national squad.
Thailand remains the toughest team to beat in the Suzuki Cup, but Palami is confident on their chances.
"I think we are a much different team right now. We have gained a lot of maturity. The players that are coming in may be used to the Southeast Asian style, but their maturity is on a high division level," said Palami. — (FREEMAN)