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The 2012 Suzuki Cup Semis (If I Were the Betting Type)

Although I did ultimately enjoy the Philippines’ two recent international friendlies against Singapore, I was not entirely without misgivings that we were playing them in the first place. Arranging international friendlies is, of course, a matter of logistics; and a lot depends on whether the other party wishes to play against you.

Still, and if only for my peace of mind, I would have preferred that we built up to the AFF Suzuki Cup by playing against teams that are similar to rather than the very same that we could more or less expect to play against later in the tournament. This way, we would not have exposed our hand by letting our possible opponents know our strengths and weaknesses intimately by being on the same pitch as them.

Be that as it may, the two friendlies may yet turn out to be to our advantage when we play the Singaporeans for the third time this year later in the week at the Rizal Memorial in the semi-finals of the Suzuki Cup. If they know Phil Younghusband’s brand of shampoo, then our boys certainly know what Khairul Amri’s favourite colour of socks is or Shi Jiayi’s brand of deodorant.

While I am not a gambling man, I think that the Philippines may be a better bet not so much because it is my country but more because I think that Kumar knew what he was talking about.
We know that we can beat them; and in spite of the optimism that our two friendly wins have fostered, only the deluded among us will think that the semi-final will be a stroll in the park. They also know that they can beat us.

A lot will depend on which Singapore team will show up at the Rizal Memorial. The team, in a mere three-match group stage, has already managed to perfect its impersonation of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality.

Fluent and masterful against their neighbours and rivals Malaysia, the Singaporeans were lacking in invention against the Indonesians and lost via the most asinine of goals. They were desperately poor in the first half against Laos and could have been sent packing from the tournament were it not for the Laotians’ own fetish for imploding in the second half.

Whatever people say of ‘meaningless friendlies,’ the psychological edge lies very much on our side. In hindsight, the most crucial benefit that we may yet have gained from the two matches – and particularly so since both went our way – are the seeds of doubt that they planted inside the opponents’ heads. Which team swaggers through a match against another team that it lost twice to within a space of two months?

Unless the Singaporeans use those two defeats to motivate themselves; in which case, we may discover to our own chagrin what the Malaysians earlier did – that the results of friendlies may count for nothing in the fiery battlefield of competition.

That said, I have the utmost confidence in our team; and if it were not for a loss of focus late in the first half against Thailand, who knows what the result against the hosts might have been?

“They’re very steady; they don’t give anything away. That’s the hallmark of a champion team." Thus stated ESPN commentator Sasi Kumar as the Philippines played out the remaining minutes of the game against Myanmar.

Indeed, since Pelé’s Brazil lifted the Jules Rimét back in 1970 – and that was more than 42 years ago – the winners of the World Cup – excepting Brazil of 1994 and, recently, Spain – rather tended to be not the most fluent attacking sides but, instead, those who gave away little at the back.

That is just modern football for you.

Kumar was spot on, then! Indeed, the Singapore teams that won back-to-back Suzuki Cup championships in 2004 and 2007 were not at all epitomes of flair but were exceedingly frugal at the back.

The Philippines might not have set Bangkok alight with Barcelona-esque flair; but at the other end, even against the Thais, how many times was Eduard Sacapaño at full stretch?

There are just two things that I am wary about regarding the semi-final tie against Singapore. First is the law of averages. Since there is no real gulf in class between the two teams, I am anxious about the law catching up with us if applied to recent months. Let us hope there is no such thing as third time lucky for Singapore.

The only other thing that worries me is the officiating. Those who followed the group stage will know that some really eyebrow-raising calls and non-calls plagued both groups in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

At least, the Singaporeans are gentlemen footballers, a label I will not give to the Thais. The latter must be most pundits’ choice to win the Suzuki Cup of 2012. On the other hand, Indonesia was just as mesmerising at the Bung Karno two years ago; only to fail miserably in the final.

While I will be generous and admit that I wish our team can play as expansively as the Thais, I will not wager on them because there is every possibility that they peaked – as the Indonesians did in 2010 – too soon in the tournament.

While I am not a gambling man, I think that the Philippines may be a better bet not so much because it is my country but more because I suspect that Kumar knew what he was talking about.

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