Vietnam out, but they shouldn’t be down

Every tournament needs an epic semi-final if it is to enter the history books as a memorable one and the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup got just that on Wednesday evening as Indonesia eliminated Vietnam to book a place in the final against either Thailand or Myanmar.

It was a game that had everything: goals, surprises, red cards, a roller-coaster of emotions before the end that saw a team that had been regarded as rank outsiders before a ball was kicked dumping out one of the pre-tournament favourites 4-3 on aggregate.

Although Indonesia had won the first leg 2-1 at home, it was widely expected that Vietnam, who had won all three games in their group, would get the goals they needed in front of 40,000 fans in Hanoi. After all, the Garudas were still grappling with the after-effects of a year-long FIFA ban that had ended only in May. Coach Alfred Riedl was only able to take two players from each club and did not have all the players he wanted.

Yet this is a team with spirit. Whether it is due to low expectations, a desire to show what the country is capable of after the FIFA ban, raw talent, smart tactics or aggression – or a combination of all of those factors, Indonesia are in a fifth final. The neutrals will surely be cheering them on due to their exciting football and indomitable spirit.

But what of Vietnam? The defeat will be hard to take. Rightly installed as second favourites behind Thailand, the Golden Stars won the group without too much trouble and will look back on the semi-final with many regrets.

The team stormed forward from the kick-off, desperate to overturn the 2-1 deficit from the first leg, but just could not find a way through. Indonesia have impressed with their fast-paced attacking play so far in the tournament but were defensively disciplined and organised in Hanoi. And they were also a little lucky.

Who could have predicted that Boaz Solassa’s cross to the far post would cause such a mix-up in the Vietnam defence to give Stefan Lilipaly the simple task of tapping the ball home ten minutes into the second half?

It left the hosts needing two just to take the game into extra-time. And then it got worse as goalkeeper Tran Nguyen Manh was sent off with 15 minutes remaining. With Vietnam already having used all three substitutes, it left centre-back Qui Ngoc Hai to go in goal.

It is credit to the Golden Stars that they fought back to score two late goals to send Hanoi into hysterics and the game into extra time but there was silence in the first period as Ngoc Hai chopped down Ferdinand Singa. Manahati Lestusen kept his nerve from the spot.

Vietnam will look back on the penalty given away by the same player in the first leg in Bogor as a major factor in the loss that put the team under more pressure for the return game. There were individual errors that cost the team on Wednesday but on another night, the pressure would have paid off.

There is still time for Vietnam. This is, largely, a young team. It can learn from this disappointment and learn from the two-legged loss by an intelligent and intense Indonesian side. Players like Luong Xuan Truong, Vu Van Thanh and Que Ngoc Hai are all in their early twenties and have done enough to confirm their reputation as potential stars. They will be stronger for the tournament and this experience.

The starting eleven usually has just one player in his thirties and that is Le Cong Vinh. Soon to turn 31, the captain and line-leader should rethink his retirement plans. There are still goals and games left in those sturdy legs and his experience will be vital too.

For Vietnam, the bigger prize is the 2019 Asian Cup. Qualification starts on March 28 and this is the priority. While it would have been ideal to go into that stage with the AFF Suzuki Cup safely on display in Hanoi, if one has to be chosen, it is the continental competition.

The Golden Stars have what it takes to qualify. There is talent in the team and it is moving in the right direction. The events of the semi-final and the group stage can only make the side stronger going forward.

And that is why the depression that currently lies over the country, from Hanoi in the north all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City, will dissipate. 2016 may have ended amid disappointment and gloom but the future for Vietnam is bright.

John Duerden