Maro: Young Azkals ready for Singapore challenge

Philippines U23 head coach Marlon Maro believes his team are capable of reaching the SEA Games semi-finals for the first time since 1991, as they prepare to take on hosts Singapore.

Having lost up to eight key players to Thomas Dooley’s senior squad for the upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the Young Azkals are coming into this competition with minimal expectations.

Shorn of the likes of Amani Aguinaldo, Daisuke Sato, OJ Porteria, Mark Hartmann and Manuel Ott, the Philippines Football Federation (PFF) has set a modest target of reaching the semi-finals for Maro’s outfit.

Speaking to FourFourTwo after his side’s training session at the Serangoon Stadium on Thursday evening, the 49-year-old sounded confident of his side’s chances as they look forward to a tough opening game against hosts Singapore at the Jalan Besar Stadium next Monday.

“Our actual target is the 2017 SEA Games and the main aim this time round is to build up the technical abilities of these young players,” he said.

“We had a training camp in Australia where the boys have done well over there, so I’m expecting positive results here.

“Of course it’ll be good game against Singapore since they are the hosts.

“It’ll be nice to play against them in front of a big crowd. I believe we will have good support too since there are a good number of Filipinos in Singapore, so we’re definitely looking to show our best on Monday.”

The bulk of Maro’s 20-strong squad are players who have just risen through the collegiate ranks. However many of them feature in the United Football League (UFL), the Filipino top division, and the coach is not keen to use inexperience as an excuse should they fail.

Defender Shimar Felongco and key forward Fitch Arboleda play for Stallion FC who are currently second in the UFL, while goalkeeper Jun Badelic and forward Paolo Salenga turn out for reigning champions Global FC.

“We’ve a very young team but aside from being members of their university teams, many of them have been playing for their local clubs back home,” Maro said.

“They’ve been playing a huge number of matches which has helped them improve, so I think we’re well ready to go.

“There are no star players in this team but I believe everyone is capable of playing in the starting eleven.”

Placed in Group A with Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and Myanmar, Maro believes the former two will make it out of the group stages.

However he is quietly hoping that his side will upset the odds and reach the semi-finals for the first time in 24 years.

“Based on previous results, I think Singapore and Indonesia will make it through,” Maro said.

“Singapore will always be there because they’re a football country, while we’re just transforming from basketball to football.

“But I think it’s a whole new ball game at this level and I believe there will be surprises along the way. 

“After missing the last SEA Games, these boys are excited to be back to take on the challenges and I hope we get a chance to play in the semi-finals since 1991.

“It’ll surely be a big challenge for these boys and I hope they live up to it.”

Photo: Teng Kiat