SEA Games: Azkals ready for 'tough group' with Vietnam

Originally published by ABS-CBN News

Philippines Under-23 men's national football team coach Norman Fegidero saw a silver lining after winding up in the same group as defending champion Vietnam in the draw held Wednesday for the 30th Vietnam Southeast Asian Games tournament.

“At least we will play Timor Leste in our first match. Hindi masyado ’yung adjustment kasi hindi maninibago ’yung mga players. (The adjustment will not be too much for the players),” noted Fegidero, whose wards ended up in Group A with the host, Timor Leste, Indonesia and Myanmar.

With Fegidero as the assistant coach to British mentor Stewart Hall, the Filipinos drew 2-2 with the Timorese in the group stage of the ASEAN Football Federation Under-23 tournament held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia last February.

The national women’s squad likewise were drawn in Group A with reigning titleholder Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia held virtually and at the AFF headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The Vietnamese scored a golden double in football in the 30th Philippine SEA Games and hope to reprise the feat on their home turf.

“We are excited, but we know it will be a tough group,” Fegidero said of the single-round group competition, with Group A kicking off on May 6 at the 30,000-seat Nam Dinh Stadium in Nam Dinh city overlooking the Red River, an 84.4-kilometer drive southeast of the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.

The Filipinos play Timor Leste in their opening match then they face Vietnamese on May 9, in a likely packed stadium in front of an animated hometown crowd, which is why Fegidero said the first match was close as ideal as it can get in shaking off the early jitters.

As part of its SEA Games buildup, the Under-23 side, under the colors of the Azkals Development Team, is seeing action in the ongoing Copa Paulino Alcantara tournament at the PFF national training center field in Carmona, Cavite.

Fegidero’s charges opened their campaign with a 3-0 rout of Mendiola Football Club last March 28, lost to powerhouse club United City 0-4 last Monday, and will play Stallion-Laguna FC on April 11.

“Some of our boys were sloppy in the first game but we were able to perform well because of their physical conditioning. Although we lost to UCFC, we saw some improvements in their game tactically and technically. I wasn’t interested by the result but by the objectives we wanted to achieve,” the coach said.

A former national team standout, Fegidero revealed that he was still tinkering with his roster before finalizing his lineup while he awaits the arrival of overseas players, including former ADT mainstays, defenders Justin Baas and Christian Rontini, who both play for separate Malaysian squads.

He added he was also hoping the release full-time of the players from clubs Kaya-Iloilo and Stallion-Laguna to formalize the lineup that he will be bringing to the Vietnam SEA Games.

“One of the difficulties in getting the services of our overseas players is their release because of the SEA Games schedule. But we have a plan B if they are not available,” Fegidero said.

The soft-spoken tactician said the main aim for the Philippines is still to get past the group stage and into the semifinals for the first time in 33 years since the 1991 Manila SEA Games.

It was Fegidero himself who was instrumental for that achievement, scoring the winning goal in the 1-0 decision over Malaysia that paved the way for the Nationals to reach the semifinal round.

The coach said the PFF was still trying to arrange for more tuneup matches overseas before arriving in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on May 6.

While the country will be an underdog in the men’s competition, the women’s squad will be among the squads to watch in Vietnam after booking a spot in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup with a historic semifinal finish in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in India last February.

Now formally known as the Filipinas, the national women’s team arrived in Sydney, Australia last week and will be once again under the helm of Aussie coach Alen Stajcic for its SEA Games buildup bankrolled by national team manager Jeff Cheng.

The PFF recently reported that the Filipinas were scheduled to play goodwill matches against Fiji Thursday and on April 11 plus possibly other teams in and around Sydney where Stajcic and his coaching staff are based.

They will aim to surpass the semifinal performance of the previous squad under coach Lelet Dimzon in the SEA Games women’s tournament held at the Biñan Football Stadium, Laguna three years ago.

It would not be farfetched for the Filipinas to surpass that feat, based on their AFC Women’s Asian Cup performance, as the SEA Games serves as part of their long-term preparations for the Women’s World Cup that will be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand from July 20 to August 20, 2023.

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