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Stars align for Philippines to shine on home soil in 2016 Suzuki Cup

While finding themselves in the more difficult of the two groups, co-hosts the Philippines can still be optimistic about their draw for the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup as they look to improve on consecutive semifinal appearances in the last three editions.

The draw was made in the Myanmar capital city of Yangon on Tuesday night. Defending champions Thailand will be the favourites to top the group, but the Azkals would fancy their chances against regional powerhouses Singapore and Indonesia, who may not be as strong as in previous years.

But Thomas Dooley's side will remember that their three opponents in Group A prevented them from moving through to the final in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

Group B see Myanmar host Malaysia, Vietnam and the winners of the last qualification round between Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Timor-Leste.

After years in footballing wilderness, the Azkals have risen to prominence to become serious contenders for the prestigious biennial tournament, co-hosted this year by Myanmar.

The Azkals will start their campaign against four time champions Singapore, a side who eliminated them 1-0 on aggregate in the 2012 semifinals.

Since that painful defeat at Jalan Besar Stadium, the Azkals have blossomed into a more settled and complete unit, having more ideas in attack and not just relying on defensive solidarity to get results. They outperformed Singapore in recent 2018 AFC World Cup qualifying.

Philippines
Thomas Dooley's team will kick off their campaign against Singapore in Group A.

The Azkals will then face tournament unknowns Indonesia, who have just been welcomed back after a 12-month suspension from FIFA.

While aware of the footballing pedigree of the Indonesians, coach Thomas Dooley will be confident of repeating the Azkals' famous 4-0 drubbing of the Merah Putih in the 2014 group stages of the competition.

The Azkals finish the group stages against four time champions Thailand. The Philippines will want to face the defending champions having already qualified for the knockout stages.

If the Azkals should navigate their way past this difficult group, it would mean quite possibly an easier tie -- one without Thailand -- in the semifinals.

Home advantage will be massive for the Azkals. While some might consider it ambitious to expect the 25,000 capacity Philippine Sports Stadium to be filled, it is possible.

This year's Azkals' squad is a major talking point.

The rise of the domestic football league, in the form of the UFL, has given former Europe-based Azkals a platform for them to showcase their talents.

This is good news for the national team. It means that the likes of Ceres and Azkals' midfielders Stephan Schrock, Martin Steuble, Manny Ott and Patrick Reichelt get to play together regularly and will be available for call-up if needed.

Philippines midfielder Stephan Schrock
The Azkals will rely on the experience of midfielder Stephan Schrock in Manila.

This has been the crux of the problem for the Azkals in recent Suzuki Cups. First choice and English League One goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and Bundesliga veteran Stephan Schrock have often been unavailable as the Suzuki Cup does not fall under FIFA dates.

But now, with most of the Azkals plying their trade in the UFL, this might not be a problem anymore.

The time is ripe for the Azkals to take the next step forward and make their first AFF final. Captain Phil Younghusband is in his prime and will have the necessary experience to inspire the team.

More importantly, with Schrock and company potentially available for selection, Younghusband will now have the necessary support to take the Azkals to the next step.

They may have fallen short in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualification, but their performances in recent times -- a draw in Pyongyang and the famous 3-2 victory over North Korea in Manila -- have shown that the team can compete with anyone on their day.

Phil Younghusband of Philippines vs. Thailand, December 2014, Suzuki Cup semifinal, second leg
Phil Younghusband will be key to Philippines' hopes of going all the way.

And the Azkals go into their first Suzuki Cup on home soil with the same man in charge. That's a luxury that has not been afforded to the team in recent years.

Having signed a fresh contract extension, Thomas Dooley knows his players well and how to integrate their strengths and styles for different opposition.

More importantly, he now has a deeper understanding of what the Suzuki Cup is all about and how to beat Southeast Asia's best teams.

The Azkals, though, still have a lot of work to do.

With Global captain Misagh Bahadoran, Chinese Super League striker Javier Patino and former A-League midfielder Iain Ramsay expected to be called up, the Azkals look menacing going forward.

But it is in defence that problems may arise, with influential centre-backs Rob Gier, Juani Guirado and Jerry Lucena all announcing their international retirements earlier this year.

More games for the national team and training camps are needed and not just friendlies like last month's match against Australian outfit Perth Glory.

Philippines were ranked as the number one team in Southeast Asia before Thailand took their place recently, but for much of the last two years the Azkals have been top of the pile, according to FIFA.

It is now time to turn that lofty billing, and unfulfilled promise, into tangible, and long overdue, silverware.

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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