S'pore 'must be ready' despite cloud over Azkals' entry

Even before the SEA Games football tournament kicks off on Dec 2, confusion reigns over the number of teams taking part.

The drama surrounds the Philippines, who were included in Wednesday's group draw even as their officials insisted that their players would not be competing in Myanmar.

The Filipinos, who failed to make it out of the group stage at the last Games in 2011, have been slotted in Group A this time round.

The group is headlined by Causeway rivals Singapore and Malaysia, who are the defending champions in the Under-23 competition.

According to Philippines national team manager Dan Palami, the country's selectors had informed their football association last month that a men's side would not be sent to the Games owing to recent lacklustre performances, such as their 0-1 loss to Singapore in a friendly in June.

As a result, the Azkals' planned friendlies as well as training tours to Japan and the Middle East were scrapped.

On being included in the Games draw, which was reportedly attended by an unidentified Filipino official, Palami told The Straits Times on Wednesday: "I'm as confused as you are - this has caught us totally by surprise.

"We're concerned because it's not been the best of preparations and we don't want to just go there to lose."

The uncertainty does not help Singapore too.

Coach Aide Iskandar said: "It's difficult for us to prepare without knowing for sure who we will be facing and when.

"But it is what it is and our boys have to get themselves mentally ready to put on a good showing for Singapore."

Aiming to avoid a repeat of their 2011 group-stage exit, the former national captain called for a strong start when they open their campaign against Laos on Dec 4.

Aide, 38, said: "Malaysia are obviously the team to beat but we don't face them till later.

"We must start well and go for the win against Laos, then take it one game at a time from there."

The mouth-watering Causeway derby takes place on Dec 10.

When the two sides last met in September, Malaysia won 1-0 en route to lifting the Merdeka Cup. Singapore finished third out of four teams.

The Young Lions' draw can be considered favourable, given that they will avoid perennial heavyweights Thailand, Indonesia and hosts Myanmar in the preliminary stage.

But, despite being grouped with minnows Laos and Brunei, Singapore captain Hariss Harun insists it is still a "very tough" assignment.

The LionsXII midfielder, 22, who will be playing in his last Games, said: "It's such a short tournament where one bad result can kill your chances.

"National pride is at stake in every game.

"It's going to be a war from start to finish."

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