Rivals beware: Five reasons to fear the Philippines at the Suzuki Cup

This week’s 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup draw put three powerhouses of the ASEAN region, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, in the same Group A as the Philippines. Not that long ago, the men from Manila would have been expected to finish fourth, but not any more. The Azkals are now a force to be reckoned with and here are five reasons the other three nations should be wary of the co-hosts...

1. Revenge is a dish best served very cold

Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand are not just the three teams that have been grouped with the Philippines this November. They are also the three countries that have knocked the Philippines out of the tournament at the last three editions. In 2010 it was Indonesia. Two years later it was Singapore and last time around it was Thailand.

All three eliminations came at the semi-final stage. It shows that the Azkals have not only been just one step away from making the final but, just as importantly, it gives the country and their fans a real source of motivation.

The Philippines have never progressed past the last four, but they have the opportunity this year to do that and prevent two out of their three past tormentors from doing the same.

2. The Philippine scene is improving all the time

A decade ago, few would have been wary of a trip to Manila, but things have changed. After years of being something of a regional whipping boy, the international evidence that things were starting to change came in 2010.

A new generation of players born and playing in Europe with Philippine parentage were drafted in and made a big difference.

The success six years ago made waves in the country. The professional United Football League also gave the country a professional league to build upon.

It took a while but club-wise the standard has been rising – just look at the success of Ceres La Salle and Kaya in this year's AFC Cup. Ceres finished above Tampines Rovers and Selangor, giants of the respective scenes in Singapore and Malaysia, in the group stage of the 2016 edition.

Fear when facing other ASEAN sides has been replaced by confidence befitting a team that, until recently overtaken by Thailand, had spent months as Southeast Asia's number one ranked side.

3. Indonesia and Singapore have issues

These two nations are mainstays of the regional scene, but neither are going through the best of times heading into the competition.

Singapore have lifted the trophy on four occasions. There is no country with more success on the regional stage. Yet the recent form of the Lions is nothing to give the Philippines too much to worry about.

The just-finished tour of Japan and Cambodia was quite depressing, even if there were mitigating circumstances with an experimental line-up and a new coach. V. Sundramoorthy has a big job ahead and whatever happens, he is unlikely to have made much headway by November. There is a lack of optimism and confidence around the Singapore camp and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Indonesia are in a different situation. The country was banned from the international game in May 2015 for almost a year. Alfred Riedl is the new national team coach and has been tasked with rebuilding the team back to one capable of challenging for the title.

There has even been calls at home for the Merah Putih to withdraw from the competition as the players will not be ready to compete so soon after the ban.

Thai coach Kiatisuk Senamuang

4. Settled team and settled coach

Take Thailand out of the equation and the Philippines have some of the best, if not the best, midfield talent in the tournament, especially with Malaysia's Safiq Rahim recently announcing his retirement from the international scene.

The Philippines' version of Safiq is Stephan Schrock. The German-born star has been consistently impressive since heading west from Europe to become a major player in the ASEAN region.

Add in the likes of  Martin Steuble, Manny Ott and Patrick Reichelt and there is real strength in this team.

Coach Thomas Dooley has been in the job for almost 30 months, far longer than many rivals. The former United States international has been building on the work of his predecessors and has introduced spirit and resilience into this team.

There were some impressive performances in World Cup qualification, with a 3-2 home win over North Korea and a goalless draw in Pyongyang standout results. It is hard to imagine any other team in the ASEAN region, other than the Thais, doing something similar.

5. Home advantage

Much has changed since 2010 when the Philippines were so surprised to reach the semi-final that there was no suitable venue in the country and both legs had to be played in Indonesia.

The Rizal Memorial Stadium was renovated in 2011 to be ready for international action, but the major addition is the construction of the new Philippines Sports Stadium in Bocaue.

The Philippines have never hosted a football tournament like this before and have not had a team as good as this before either.

The latter arena should be up to 25,000 capacity for the three big games. Nobody knows what such a thing could do for the Azkals as it hasn't really happened before.

If it does this November, anything less than a fourth consecutive place in the last four would be a disappointment. And that may well not be the end of it.