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'Almost a replay of 2018' awaits Azkals in Suzuki Cup '21

Coach Scott Cooper is not taking the Azkals' AFF Suzuki Cup group lightly despite it being seemingly favorable on paper.
By Ivan Saldajeno

MANILA—The Azkals' quest in this year's AFF Suzuki Cup will begin nearly identical to how they kicked off their campaign in 2018.

The Azkals have been drawn with Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, and the winner of the qualifying match between Brunei and Timor Leste following the group draw on Tuesday at the AFF headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.

[Related Story: Azkals drawn with Thailand in Suzuki Cup prelims]

"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 group stage play.

Indonesia joins defending champion Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos in Group B.

"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," Cooper further analyzed what went down.

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 continued.

Meanwhile, Team Manager Dan Palami hopes that the Azkals will 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 said footballers will play in an event outside of the FIFA 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 further said.

Follow him on Twitter: @IvanSaldajeno

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