Old foes Singapore and the Philippines will meet again at the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup in December, and their Group A showdown will most likely determine who will make it to the semi-finals.
At the virtual draw yesterday, Singapore were picked to play five-time winners Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines and the winners of a single-leg qualifier between Brunei and Timor-Leste.
In Group B, defending champions Vietnam are pooled with Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos.
It will be national coach Tatsuma Yoshida's first major tournament and he has demanded title ambition, saying: "I heard about the Suzuki Cup while I was in Japan and I know it is an important tournament in South-east Asia and to Singapore fans, so I am greatly looking forward to the tournament.
"We should be ambitious, give our best and always aim to be a challenger for the trophy, but we should also take each match as it comes and target to progress out of the group first... we will not underestimate any side."
To reach the knockout stage of the Cup, the Lions - four-time champions who exited the group stage in the last three editions in 2014, 2016 and 2018 - will need to finish in the top two of their group.
Former Singapore defender and pundit R. Sasikumar, who scored the winning goal in Singapore's 1-0 win over Vietnam in the 1998 final, noted that the game against the Philippines will be crucial.
Calling it a good draw for the Lions, he said: "Thailand are way ahead of us, but I would rather have them than Vietnam, who are in a different class rubbing shoulders competing against Australia and Saudi Arabia in the third round of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
"So it's between Singapore, Myanmar and the Philippines... Myanmar are no pushovers, and we lost 2-1 to them in 2019. But the Philippines have also really improved over the years with their recruitment of mixed heritage players to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, and our game against them could be pivotal."
Singapore edged the Philippines 1-0 in the two-legged semi-finals in 2012, but could not beat them in group-stage matches at the 2010, 2016 and 2018 editions.
Azkals coach Scott Cooper praised the Lions as "well-organised", while their media officer Cedelf Tupas, who covered the last five tournaments for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said the Philippines should feel confident against Singapore based on their improvements and recent track record.
He added: "More than a decade ago, Singapore would be heavily favoured, but times have changed and the Azkals have improved significantly, while the current Lions team have not duplicated the success of their predecessors.
"But if the recent World Cup qualifiers were an indication of Singapore's organisation and discipline, the Philippines-Singapore clash could possibly be the decider for the semi-final spot."
Unlike the 2018 edition that was decentralised, the upcoming tournament will be held in one country to minimise travelling during the ongoing pandemic.
The Straits Times understands that Singapore and Thailand are favourites to host the Dec 5-Jan 1 tournament, and AFF president Khiev Sameth shared that organisers should unveil the host in a few weeks. Regardless, the Lions are just glad to be able to resume competition after the event was delayed for a year due to the pandemic.
The Lions will begin centralised training after the Singapore Premier League season ends on Oct 10.
Lions skipper Hariss Harun said: "Under coach Tatsuma, we were playing with freedom and belief before Covid-19 struck. We have had to start all over again during the pandemic, and we want to rediscover that form and momentum."
But there could be a tussle for the services of FK Jerv striker Ikhsan Fandi as the Norwegian First Division regular season ends on Nov 27 with the possibility of play-offs after that. Jerv are not obliged to release Ikhsan because the AFF Championship does not fall within Fifa's international football window.
Sasikumar said: "We have a good core of players in our goalkeepers, Safuwan (Baharudin), Hariss and Ikhsan. But Ikhsan is irreplaceable. He is our main target man and one of the top No. 9s in the region. If we don't have him, we will miss our main goalscorer and in all likelihood our chance of qualifying."
AFF SUZUKI CUP
Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Brunei/Timor-Leste
Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos
* Tournament to be played from Dec 5-Jan 1 in one country yet to be decided