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Five Azkals to bring AFF Suzuki Cup glory to co-hosts Philippines in 2016

Philippines striker Phil Younghusband
Phil Younghusband will be the key man for the Azkals in Bocaue.

MANILA -- From once being the whipping boys of Southeast Asia, the Philippines have risen to become the region's top-ranked team, and will begin the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup as one of the favourites.

Crashing out in the semifinals of the last three editions, the Azkals hope to go at least one step further as they host the tournament for the first time.

Despite missing key personnel in important positions, the Philippines still have enough quality to win their first-ever AFF title. Here are five Azkals who are tasked with bringing glory to the country:

1. Phil Younghusband

All lists involving important national players would have to start with captain, and all-time leading goalscorer, Phil Younghusband.

But he has had a forgettable 2016 so far, starting the year with an injury before seeing his club Loyola Meralco Sparks finish out of the AFC Cup slots, on goal difference. Keen to make amends, Younghusband's motivation coming into the tournament is sky-high.

No longer the unknown quantity of years past, he has become a marked man for opposing defences. Adapting his game to the team's needs with his superior passing range, he has played a deeper role in recent times, yet it has not dulled his goal-scoring instincts.

For the Azkals to progress, Younghusband has to be in top form.

2. Stephan Schrock

His arrival early this year to Ceres La Salle from Bundesliga 2 side Greuther Furth was not just a coup for the UFL, it was also a major boost for the Azkals.

Unable to participate in the last two editions of the Suzuki Cup due to club commitments in Europe, the mercurial Schrock is now available to lend his vast experience in the Azkals' quest for regional pride.

Comfortable playing anywhere in the final third, Schrock not only brings experience in pressure-packed games, he also provides much needed steel, and a cutting edge on the field.

Fans certainly hope that Stephan Schrock's AFF debut will be a memorable one.

Philippines striker Misagh Bahadoran
Misagh Bahadoran could lead the Philippines attack against Singapore.

3. Misagh Bahadoran

Global FC have enjoyed a very successful 2016, winning the domestic league and cup double. That is largely due to the superb form shown by their captain, Misagh Bahadoran.

In the form of his life, Bahadoran terrorises defences with his pace and trickery. With his confidence growing, he will be a weapon in Dooley's arsenal.

He can come off the bench to provide fresh legs, as he has did against Kyrgyzstan in a recent friendly, or he can be the fulcrum of the Azkals attack from the opening whistle.

Once derided for his poor decision making skills and ball-hogging tendencies, a more mature Bahadoran spells trouble for opposing defences.,

4. Amani Aguinaldo

A stingy defence used to be the trademark in tournaments past, as the Philippines relied on an airtight defence to advance to three consecutive semifinals.

But, with the retirement of defensive stalwarts Rob Gier, Jerry Lucena and Juani Guirado, and the untimely injury to Simone Rota, all eyes will be on the 21-year-old Amani Aguinaldo to be the defensive bedrock the team so desperately needs.

With defender Daisuke Sato also ruled out of the Suzuki Cup due to European club commitments, all eyes will be on Amani Aguinaldo, who will have to play the games of his life to anchor the suddenly frail-looking Azkals defence.

Philippines coach Thomas Dooley and Juani Guirado
The retirement of defender Juani Guirado, right, leaves the Azkals light at the back.
 

5. Manny Ott

A fresh-faced 18-year-old when he was included in the Philippine squad for their historic 2010 Suzuki Cup run, Manny Ott has since developed into the ultimate playmaker for club and country.

Possessing vision and a good technique, Ott can make this tournament a platform to showcase his brilliance to the whole of Asia.

Given the keys to the Azkals' engine, Ott will have Dooley's full trust and confidence to dictate the Azkals' play and control the tempo.

Freed from his defensive duties, fans will look for Ott to be the driving force for the Azkals in their quest for regional glory over the next month.

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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