The dust is barely settling after Vietnam were crowned the champions of Southeast Asia, but they have little time to rest on the laurels as an even bigger challenge awaits them at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 which is less than three weeks away now!
If the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 triumph set the Golden Dragons apart from their familiar foes from the ASEAN region, the Asian Cup which awaits kickoff in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the first week of January is an opportunity for the Vietnamese to show their true mettle among the big boys with the whole of Asia watching.
A group that has already stunned Asia twice this year making it to the final of the AFC U23 Championship and the semifinals of the Asian Games 2018, it would have been only natural for Park Hang-seo’s men to put their best foot forward in the continental championship.
However, the South Korean tactician’s selection, or the lack thereof, of the preliminary squad for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 begs to tell a different tale!
TWO SHOCK EXCLUSIONS!
After a terrific AFF Suzuki Cup, not many expected Park to tinker with a winning formula. After all, they were playing an excellent brand of football and the group was a perfect mix of youth and experience. So, even as seven new youngsters were added to the squad for Asian Cup preparations, none bet on a shuffling in its core.
But what do we know! News soon poured in that the Vietnam squad for the Asian Cup was not to have two very prominent names — those of national team captain Nguyen Van Quyet and star striker Nguyen Anh Duc.
Van Quyet had only collected the trophy from Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc four days ago as Vietnam captain despite not playing in the second leg. The 27-year-old had only made four appearances in the biennial tournament clocking 144 minutes of action.
However, with over 50 international caps, he was one of the more experienced members of this squad whose average age is just 23.69 years. The same goes for Anh Duc, the 33-year-old striker whose exclusion was even more difficult to comprehend!
The Becamex Binh Duong forward scored four goals in AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 — even netting the championship-winning goal in the sixth minute in Hanoi. When Vietnam have wanted goals in recently, he is the man they have turned to and he has delivered more often than not.
But the decision to drop them for the continent’s most important tournament has the fans digging for answers! So, what could have forced Park to exclude the experienced duo?
MORE POWER TO THE YOUTH?
In the first leg of the final at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, the Vietnam head coach played Ha Duc Chinh, Phan Van Duc and Nguyen Quang Hai as the front three leaving Anh Duc on the bench for the crunch clash. The reason given was that the seasoned striker needed rest, but with hindsight, it was sign of things to come.
Playing a front three with an average age less than 21, Vietnam launched into a two-goal lead, only for Malaysia to claw back parity. But what was proven that night in front of close to 90,000 Malaysian fans was that the youth of Vietnam can stand on their own. And the coach seems to have utmost faith in young blood.
That is proven by the inclusion of seven more young starlets — Tran Minh Vuong, Dinh Thanh Binh, Phan Thanh Hau, Nguyen Thanh Chung Ngan Van Dai, Ngo Tung Quoc and Nguyen Hoang Duc — to an already young squad as they prepare for one of the toughest challenges that there is.
Whether they will thrive under pressure or crumble with the weight of expectation is, however, to be seen.
VIETNAM DO NOT FANCY THE ASIAN CUP?
Another explanation for Park Hang-seo picking a youthful squad could be that he simply doesn’t fancy his team’s chances in the competition. It would be foolish for any coach to have that kind of thinking, but with the exciting team that he is currently building, the South Korean, for one, can be excused.
Vietnam are pooled with Iran, Iraq and Yemen in Group D of the AFC Asian Cup and Park, who knows the team inside out, seems to think that they do not have what it takes to make much progress in the competition (at least for now!).
Even if they do get out of the group, they’d have even greater challenges awaiting in the knockout stages. So, why not present the youngsters that make the core of the team (now, and for years to come) with the best chance to experience football at the highest level in Asia?
And in doing so, also prepare them better for the future challenges? It looks like that is exactly what the South Korean coach’s and Vietnam Football Federation’s thinking is. Now talking about future challenges, Vietnam indeed have a couple of big tournaments lined up in which they have more realistic chances of winning and taking the momentum of development forward.
First up is the AFC U23 Championship qualification to be held in March 2019. Having made the final of tournament proper earlier this year, it is vital that the Golden Star Warriors secure qualification for the event at the earliest and even dream of winning it come 2020.
There is also the Southeast Asian Games 2019 to be held in Philippines where Vietnam can once again cement their position as the kings of ASEAN. And to do so, it looks like Park Hang-seo believes that passing on a shot at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 is a small price to pay.