AFF Suzuki Cup 2016

Football: Younghusband's old grudge against Lions

Brothers James (left) and Phil Younghusband will be key components of a Philippines team eager to capture their first AFF Suzuki Cup title. The Azkals will have the advantage of playing on home soil in their bid to first qualify for the semi-finals f
Brothers James (left) and Phil Younghusband will be key components of a Philippines team eager to capture their first AFF Suzuki Cup title. The Azkals will have the advantage of playing on home soil in their bid to first qualify for the semi-finals from their group alongside Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Philippine striker ready to lead host country's title charge, starting with Singapore opener

In Quezon City's Novotel Araneta Hotel lobby on Thursday, fans witnessed a unique gathering of South-east Asian football's most devastating strikers, past and present.

The Singapore team had returned from training, with caretaker coach V. Sundramoorthy and Fandi Ahmad, who is assisting the Lions' preparations, exchanging warm handshakes with Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang. All three were strikers of immense repute during their playing days.

Further down the lobby's corridor, the Philippines' own James Younghusband drew admiring looks from hotel guests as he stepped out of the restaurant.

The 30-year-old forward will be one of the Azkals' key players in their bid to win their first Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup. With home ground advantage and a string of impressive recent results, Younghusband believes this is his country's hour.

He told The Straits Times: "The target is to win it, we are definitely contenders this time.

LIONS ARE AZKALS' NEMESIS

We had many encounters against Singapore in the past but it seems that they always win. That's something on my mind and we are definitely well-prepared to put an end to that.

JAMES YOUNGHUSBAND, Philippines striker, is looking to end Singapore's dominance over his country.


A GAME OF BOTH CRAFT AND GRAFT

We will try to play good football but we will be physical, too. Or else we might as well play chess.

THOMAS DOOLEY, Philippines coach, on not shying away from reminding his side football is a contact sport.

"We reached the last two semis but we are not satisfied. We want to go one step further."

In 2012, the Philippines, noted for calling up a string of European and Latin players with roots in the archipelago, lost 0-1 on aggregate to the Lions in the semi-finals.

Two years later, they reached the last four again but were outclassed 3-0 on aggregate by a rampant Thai team that went on to clinch their fourth AFF title.

The defeats were not lost on Younghusband, whose younger brother Phil is also in the squad. He said: "We had many encounters against Singapore in the past but it seems that they always win.

"That's something on my mind and we are definitely well-prepared to put an end to that."

The Philippines are currently 140th in Fifa's world rankings, 31 rungs above Singapore.

In the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, they finished a creditable third in the five-team Group H after wins over Bahrain (2-1), North Korea (3-2) and Yemen (2-0) and they remain in contention for a place in the third round of next year's 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers.

There were also home and away friendly victories over Kyrgyzstan this year (2-1 and 1-0).

Yet, their coach - former United States captain Thomas Dooley - is preaching caution as they open their Cup campaign against Singapore tonight at at the 20,000 capacity Philippines Sports Stadium in the town of Bocaue, outside Manila.

  • Key battles

  • AMANI AGUINALDO v KHAIRUL AMRI

    Aged just 21, Aguinaldo already has 25 caps under his belt. The 1.82m-tall centre-back and University of the Philippines sports science undergraduate is a tight man-marker and is likely to stick to Amri like a limpet. Still, the veteran Singapore striker has a box of tricks to shake off defenders.

    STEPHAN SCHROCK v HARISS HARUN

    Azkals coach Thomas Dooley has called on his players to fight against the Lions and the man to do his bidding is Germany-born Schrock. Although he stands at 1.7m, he loves a scrap and it is up to Singapore vice-captain Hariss to win some tackles early and put the Lions in the driving seat.

    PHIL YOUNGHUSBAND v HASSAN SUNNY

    Singapore goalkeeper Hassan is currently in excellent form and he is firmly installed as Sundram's first-choice custodian. It will be an intriguing battle against Azkals' leading scorer Younghusband. The former Chelsea trainee has 42 goals in 82 caps and is seen as the top football idol in his country.

"The rankings don't mean anything, we have to respect our opponents," he insisted.

"Mentally, we are ready. Singapore are a good team, they are underdogs but they are a team to beware of. We have to be ready to fight from the first minute."

The Philippines play a high-speed game allied with raw physical power, owing to a number of European-born players with Philippine roots. Stalwarts such as Stephan Schrock (Germany) and the Younghusband brothers (England) typify their direct approach.

Nevertheless, Dooley hopes that his team can be viewed as more than just long-ball merchants.

He said: "I hope the people see that we can play football. This is a sport with body contact and I spent my life loving to watch and play football. And I make that point to my team to play football.

"We will try to play good football but we will be physical, too. Or else we might as well play chess."

Despite Dooley's caution, it is evident that Younghusband is itching to help the Azkals past the AFF Cup group stages and, hopefully, to clinch the cherished regional trophy for the Philippines.

He said: "The Azkals want a good start in a tough group like this. It's not just Singapore, there's Thailand and Indonesia. But we are at home and we would love to do it for our fans. Besides, all those defeats against Singapore will only serve as extra motivation for us."

PHILIPPINES V SINGAPORE

Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, 7.30pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Younghusband's old grudge against Lions'. Print Edition | Subscribe