Park Hang-seo’s Vietnam did the unthinkable when they defeated Jordan in the penalty shootouts to reach the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 underway in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this week. Or did they?
The Golden Dragons displayed fighting spirit to progress from a group that featured former champions Iran and Iraq as well as Yemen while also skipping past the challenge of Jordan, who had stunned both defending champions Australia and Syria earlier, in the Round of 16.
AFC Asian Cup 2019: Vietnam and their road to the quarter-finals, the story so far
But for those who have followed the trajectory of the Vietnam national team in recent times, this quarterfinal appearance hasn’t come as much of a surprise. After Park took over the reigns of the national team in 2017, the warriors in red have been defying the odds in Asian football and pretty consistently at that.
They have been doing this for a while now so much so that their fans actually expect them to pull off surprises every time they take their field in a competition now — be it the AFC U-23 Championship, the 2018 Asian Games, the AFF Suzuki Cup and now the grandest of it all in the form of the Asian Cup.
Before they face Japan, the most successful team in the history of the Asian Cup, in the quarterfinals on Thursday, let’s take a look at Vietnam’s story so far.
VIETNAM’S ROAD TO THE EMIRATES
The Golden Dragons’ road to the UAE has been a long and arduous one and it all started almost four years ago with the combined 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in 2015. Drawn in a group featuring Thailand, Indonesia, Iraq and Chinese Taipei, Vietnam’s only wins came against the group’s whipping boys Taiwan as they finished third in the group meaning they were already out of contention for the World Cup. However, a spot in the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers came as a consolation.
Third round saw them pitted with Jordan, Afghanistan and Cambodia and the Vietnamese began their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Afghanistan on March 28, 2017. They were held to another goalless draw against Jordan in their second match followed by a 2-1 win over regional rivals Cambodia. Park took over the reigns in September 2017 and his first qualifying match in charge saw the Golden Dragons thrash the Angkor Warriors 5-0 in the return fixture at Hanoi in October. The foundation for success was already being laid.
Vietnam ended their campaign with two more draws taking the second spot in the table with 10 points, three less than group winners Jordan, and making sure that their name will be in one of the pots when the draw for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 was to be held on May 2018.
THE ASIAN CUP DRAW
The Asian Cup 2019 draw which took place in Dubai did not hand Vietnam the easiest of opponents. They were pooled into Group D with three-time champions Iran, 2007 champions Iraq and newcomers Yemen with many describing it as the toughest group in the tournament.
Vietnam had never met two of three West Asian sides in the tournament with their only previous experience coming against Iraq to whom they lost in quarterfinals back in 2007. But with even the third-placed team from the group having a chance to progress under the new format, Park and his boys clearly believed it was a mission possible.
THE GROUP STAGES
IRAQ 3-2 VIETNAM – January 8, 2019
Analysis of Iraq’s 3-2 win over Vietnam
The opening fixture was touted as the one that would decide who will finish second behind Iran in the group, and with hindsight, it is exactly what happened, but not in favour of the Southeast Asians. The Vietnamese were cruelly undone by a stoppage time free kick goal from Iraq’s experienced full back Ali Adnan. Vietnam had faced the 2007 Asian champions without fear and taken the lead on two occasions. In the 24th minute, they forced an own goal from Ali Faez Asia which was cancelled out by Iraqi teenage sensation Mohanad Ali. However, Nguyen Cong Phuong once again pulled the Golden Dragons ahead before halftime. However, Humam Tariq found Iraq’s equaliser at the hour mark before Adnan found the winner denying Vietnam a deserved point. Despite their defeat, Park’s boys made plenty of admirers with their valiant effort against one of the contenders.
VIETNAM 0-2 IR IRAN – January 12, 2019
Vietnam knew things weren’t going to be easy after opening the tournament with a defeat and next, they faced the highest-ranked team in Asian in IR Iran. Iran had just thrashed Yemen 5-0 in their opening fixture and many feared Vietnam will struggle to compete against Team Melli. But compete they did as they gave a good account of themselves against Carlos Queiroz’s side. However, two goals from Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun was enough for Iran to book a place in the last 16 of the Asian Cup.
VIETNAM 2-0 YEMEN – January 16, 2019
AFC Asian Cup: The Vietnamese Messi? Nguyen Quang Hai’s dead-ball prowess is a big asset for the best team in ASEAN
Events elsewhere meant that Vietnam could still progress as one of the four best third-placed teams if they took all three points and scored plenty against debutants Yemen. But having given their all against two of the biggest teams in Asian in the first two group games, Vietnam’s South Korean tactician announced before the game that his players were physically and mentally exhausted. And it looked like it was not going to be a straightforward game against the Yemenis. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. As Vietnam were being frustrated by Yemen, 20-year-old Nguyen Quang Hai channelled his inner Lionel Messi to plant a free kick into the goal with his left giving Park’s team a much needed opener. Captain Que Ngoc Hai would find Vietnam’s other goal in the game from the penalty spot as a 2-0 win meant that their fate will depend on happenings elsewhere in other groups. ti was all going down to the wire.
LEBANON 4-1 DPR KOREA – January 17, 2019
This would have been one match the whole Vietnam team watched from their team hotel at the edge of their seats. Vietnam were sitting precariously as in the final position when it comes to the third-placed teams and Lebanon knew a win with a four-goal margin will see them leapfrog Vietnam into that spot and ensure Round of 16 qualification. And they almost did, but Vietnam held on by the scruff of the neck. In the end, it was a better disciplinary record that let the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 champions through after Lebanon won the game 4-1 and matched Vietnam’s goal difference.
ROUND OF 16
JORDAN 1-1 VIETNAM (AET, 2-4 on penalties) – January 20, 2019
Vietnam’s TOP THREE performers against Jordan
And into the knockout stages they went. Vietnam were making only their second knockout appearance in the Asian Cup — the only time they made it so far was in 2007 when they co-hosted the event. And it was familiar foes they were facing in Jordan who they met twice during their road to the Asian Cup 2019. However, it as a Jordan side who were an altogether different outfit after upsetting reigning champions Australia and Syria in their group. Jordan began on the front foot and took the lead in the 39th minute through Baha’ Abdel-Rahman. But Park’s team found a way back through Cong Phuong immediately after the restart forcing extra time and then penalties as the two sides could not be separated. It was the new Muangthong United custodian Dang Van Lam who emerged as the hero of the day as he saved from Ahmed Saleh after Baha’ Seif had hit the woodwork. This was also Vietnam’s first win the knockout stages of the Asian Cup.
VIETNAM vs JAPAN – January 24, 2019
It is the mighty Japanese who stand in Vietnam’s way in the quarterfinals of the continental showpiece. The two teams will meet at Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai on Thursday. Japan haven’t looked at their best in the tournament so far winning all four of their matches so far by one-goal margins. And Vietnam might just be smelling blood against the Samurai Blue. However, getting the better of the four-time Asian champions will be an altogether different proposition, and if Park and his young team somehow manages to do it, it will definitely be written into the history books as the best feat by any ASEAN team in history. Let’s back the Golden Dragons!