AFF Suzuki Cup Final: A fairytale ending for Indonesia?

Can Indonesia go all the way and win the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time? FOX Sports Asia takes a look at what to expect from what promises to be an enthralling final.

Not far off a decade ago Indonesia was the venue for one of the greatest Cinderella stories in Asian football as war-torn Iraq defied pre-tournament expectations and a crippled league to lift the 2007 AFC Asian Cup in Jakarta.

Fast-forward ten years and the narrative is quite similar; a nation entering a major competition with its league in disarray, disputes between various factions threatening to derail the campaign and limited expectations both internally and externally.

The difference this time is that it’s Indonesia themselves who are at the centre of this remarkable tale and as coach Alfred Riedl has said repeatedly they have already vastly overachieved just to reach the final.

Whilst it’s a major disappointment that the grand old Gelora Bung Karno is unavailable, the more compact Pakansari Stadium in Bogor will be the venue where the Garudas hope to keep their remarkable run going – with 30,000 inside the arena itself but millions more there in spirit.

Visiting Thailand though, present the sternest possible challenge: a team that is stacked with depth throughout the squad, on a lengthy winning run and with a backroom and support staff the likes of which have never been seen in the tournament’s history.

They’re also threatening to re-write several chapters of the record book as they look to become the first team in the history of the competition to win six straight matches whilst coach Kiatisuk Senamuang is aiming to become just the third man to guide his team to back-to-back tournament wins after Peter Withe’s Thailand in 2000 & 2002 and Raddy Avramovic with Singapore in 2004 & 2007.

Moreover, the War Elephants have remarkably only lost two of their past 19 matches at the tournament – and both of those came in finals – a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Singapore in 2012 and a 3-2 loss to Malaysia in 2014.

They’ve also been nothing short of a supreme attacking force over the past half-decade and boast the scarcely believable achievement of only having been held scoreless twice in their past 30 matches in the tournament, a run dating all the way back to the 2007 edition.

The odds are then that the visiting team for the first leg are likely to score, meaning a repeat of the semifinals where Indonesia edged Vietnam 2-1 at home to set up their aggregate win, is what will likely be required for Riedl’s side.

Having done just that already in this tournament where they lost 4-2 to the Thais in the opening match they will be confident that they have the attacking threat to cause the favourites some trouble.

Playing in a fairly ‘loose’ role either alongside or just behind the frontline, Stefano Lilipaly has been a standout, as has veteran captain Boaz Solossa, whilst wingers Rizky Pora and Andik Vermansyah have provided pace, tricky, and excellent service from the wide areas for a lively attacking team.

Can they trouble the Thai defence?

The issue for Indonesia then is just how much to ‘risk’ in the first leg, knowing they will face an almighty battle in the return this Saturday in Bangkok.

Does Riedl stick with his more familiar 4-2-3-1 or does he retain the 4-4-2 that worked so well against Vietnam last week? Or does he perhaps drop the wingers even deeper and convert things to a more conservative 4-5-1, looking to use the pace of the wide men to strike on the break?

It’s extremely unlikely that a Thai team which has scored almost at will thus far will be held scoreless across two legs so at some point the Indonesians will need to raise their tempo and the opening moments of the home leg would seem to be the ideal time.

Almost without exception their opponents have ceded far too much space and time to the Thais, so an up-tempo opening where they look to use ‘situational’ pressing could well unsettle a team which once it clicks into its rhythm is very hard to break down.

Thailand have given off the impression of almost playing within themselves thus far; just raising their level enough when required to get a goal or seal a victory and nowhere was that more evident than in the group stage where four of their six goals came in the final 11 minutes of matches.

At this level the Thais are capable of almost lifting at will and that makes them the most dangerous of opponents.

Captain Teerasil Dangda, sums up this attitude perfectly where for long periods he appears to be just strolling about – often with his head facing down as if he’s scavenging for loose change – before clicking into gear and setting off on a series of mazy runs or firing off powerful shots and he is clearly the main danger here for Indonesia.

The support cast isn’t half bad either with Chanathip Songkrasin, now rightly regarded as the most gifted playmaker in Southeast Asia, and the attack-minded fullbacks, Teerathon Bunmathan and Tristan Do, completing what is almost a six man forward line at times. The ‘holder’ Sarach Yooyen is in many ways the glue that binds this team together, protecting those in advanced roles and acting as the primary outlet for the three man defensive unit.

On paper, this is one of the more lopsided finals that we’ve seen in recent editions of the Suzuki Cup, perhaps going right the way back to 2008 where it was also Thailand who entered the final as the hottest of hot favourites.

On that occasion, as here, the Thais had defeated the nation – Vietnam – who they would face in the final by two goals in their opening group stage match.

The Vietnamese then stunned Thailand with two goals inside the opening 45 minutes of the first leg and ended up triumphing 3-2 on aggregate in a match where Teerasil’s second leg goal was not quite enough.

The neutral’s favourite, Indonesia, will be hoping that history repeats itself here as the final of the eleventh Suzuki Cup is almost upon us.

Scott McIntyre