MANILA – The Philippine Azkals have been grouped with Thailand during the group stage draw for the AFF Suzuki Cup at the AFF headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.

The Azkals and the Thais are expected to cruise through Group A, which also includes Myanmar, Singapore, and the winner of the qualifying match between Brunei and Timor Leste.

Although they ended up with Thailand, which has ruled the event five times already, the Azkals dodged defending champion Vietnam as the latter joins Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos in Group B.

Supposed to be played last year but was postponed to Dec. 5, 2021 to Jan. 1, 2022 due to the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic, the Suzuki Cup will begin with the home-and-away group stages.

The top two teams per group will enter the crossover semifinals, which will be played in a couple of two-match home-and-away series.

The winning semifinalists will slug it out in the two-legged championship series to decide the champion.

2018 all over again

With the Azkals, Thailand, and Singapore being grouped again and the possibility of Timor Leste repeating over Brunei, it was almost like the scene in the 2018 group stages.

"Ironically the last time we played in the Suzuki Cup, we had Singapore, Timor-Leste, who could be there, and Thailand with the only difference is Indonesia, which is in the other group. It’s almost like a replay of 2018," Head Coach Scott Cooper said upon reacting to the group draw results.

The Azkals and Indonesia have been placed in Pot 3 of the group draw, assuring that both teams will go separate ways in the group stage play.

Further looking at the draw results, Cooper added, "I think as far as the draw goes, it’s an interesting one. I never want to say I’m pleased with the draw but I’m not disappointed with the draw."

He, however, conceded that Thailand, which has won the championship five times already, will likely top Group A.

"For sure Thailand will be the top team in the group you can expect that from them. It’s interesting for me because I know Thailand so well and the players too," added Cooper, who previously managed Thai League 1 sides Buriram, Muangthong, and Police Tero as well as Ubon, which at the time he was appointed coach in 2015 was playing in the third division.

Meanwhile, despite the Azkals being tipped to take the other semifinal spot for Group A, Cooper believes Singapore, Myanmar, Brunei, and Timor Leste will give them a fight.

"Singapore are always well organized and Myanmar always has talent, and you have both Brunei and Timor-Leste, two teams that will fight," he further said.

He then took the case of Timor Leste, which the Azkals narrowly escaped in the 2018 Suzuki Cup.

"We learned that against Timor-Leste in the last Suzuki Cup, they were really well-coached, they pressed us and we narrowly escaped that game with a 3-2 win. I don’t think you can treat any team lightly," Cooper added.

Meanwhile, Team Manager Dan Palami expressed hope that the Azkals would still get its best players for the Suzuki Cup.

The tournament has been known for playing outside of the FIFA international window.

Professional football clubs are not required to temporarily send off their players for national team duty if the footballers will play in an event outside of the FIFA window, that is, the teams can opt to keep their international stars from joining their national teams that are scheduled to compete outside of the window.

"Hopefully, we get the best players available even though the tournament is outside the FIFA international window," Palami said.

He added that even if they are placed in a light group, the end goal of beating the traditional title contenders remains.

"The draw doesn't really matter as we still need to beat the best teams to win the Suzuki Cup," Palami said. (PNA)