Golden Stars shooting for AFF Suzuki Cup glory

FOX Sports Asia takes an in-depth look at Vietnam, who harbour hopes of capturing a second AFF Suzuki Cup title to go with their lone win in 2008.

Earlier this week the Suzuki Cup trophy continued its whirlwind tour of the eight nations involved in the final stage of the tournament when it made a stop in Vietnam, with excited local supporters dreaming of a more permanent return for the prize at the end of next month.

If recent form is anything to go by those expectations have more than a realistic hope of being met. As a dynamic team which mixes some of the most exciting young talent in the region with some vastly experienced older hands continues to impress as kickoff to the 11th edition of the Suzuki Cup approaches.

In a very evenly balanced group there appears to be no clear favourite amongst Myanmar, Malaysia and Cambodia in Vietnam’s group and they will travel to Yangon with expectations of nothing less than a spot in the semifinals.

An impressive 3-2 win over Indonesia in Hanoi earlier this week (their first win over that nation in 17 years) has done little to dampen those expectations, coming as it does on the back of an earlier 2-2 draw with the same opponent in Sleman in early October. That came just three days after a stunning 5-2 defeat of 2010 World Cup finalists North Korea in Ho Chi Minh City.

Indeed, since the appointment of former national star Nguyen Huu Thang as coach earlier this year the team has been on an impressive run of results, winning seven and drawing three of his 11 matches in charge with the only loss being a narrow 1-0 defeat in neutral Tehran against 2007 AFC Asian Cup champion Iraq.

Unlike several other nations at the tournament it’s that high-calibre of opposition that they’ve faced in the lead-up to the tournament that should have the ‘Golden Stars’ peaking at exactly the right time.

Add to that mix a two-week training camp in South Korea in October and a final hitout against J.League club Avispa Fukuoka at home this weekend and things are looking good for the 2008 champions.

Whilst captain Le Cong Vinh – who will retire from international football at the conclusion of the tournament – is clearly the headline act, he has around him some of the most gifted young talent in Southeast Asian football.

The fact that most of those young stars are products of the Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) academy – run in conjunction with Arsenal – is no accident, as the first wave of products to roll of the production line have been nothing short of superb and several loom as key cogs in this Vietnamese side.

Midfielder Nguyen Tuan Anh heads to the tournament under an injury cloud but both he and fellow 21-year-old Luong Xuan Truong are technically excellent central operators who are able to control the rhythm and tempo of a match, and provide a key link between defence and attack. Forward Nguyen Cong Phuong is another fine technician who provides both precision in his passing and movement and a genuine goal threat.

All three are currently on loan from HAGL in Japan and Korea after having spent close to a decade honing their skills in one of the region’s finest academy programs. Now they are set to be unleashed on their Southeast Asian rivals here for the first time.

Add to that trio a pair of 20-year-olds in the dynamic left back, Vu Vanh Thanh, and forward Nguyen Van Toan, who are also both products of the same system, and Vietnam has skill, pace and movement in abundance, especially in the front six.

While goalkeeper Tran Nguyen Manh is a steady presence, it’s at the back where the greatest question marks lie for the nation. Despite this, they should definitely have the goals in them to remain competitive in any contest.

Allied to those technical qualities the players have spoken in glowing terms about their physical capabilities since the arrival of German fitness coach Martin Forkel, and there’s a sense that things are coming together very nicely indeed for the Vietnamese.

Qualifiers for each of the previous ten editions, only twice has the nation failed to progress from beyond the group stage, and with captain Le Cong Vinh sure to be motivated to get the four goals that he needs to move him to the top of the all-time scorers list this is a nation which has the potential to go all the way to the final.

Whilst there’s a feeling amongst supporters and indeed some of the playing group that the side is perhaps better primed for a tilt at the 2018 edition when their core group of emerging stars will be more seasoned, there’s no reason why they can’t emerge from an open group and then push any nation they may face in the knockout stages all the way.

Scott McIntyre