FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan previews all the Group A action with the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 getting underway on Thursday.
The two-year wait is over with AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 – the 12th edition of Southeast Asia’s premier international tournament – set to kick off on Thursday with the Group A action.
The new format this year sees five teams in either group host two games each with Cambodia and Laos beginning the campaign at home to Malaysia and Vietnam respectively, while Myanmar will have to wait till Monday to be in action.
Here, FOX Sports Asia provides the ultimate preview for Group A, which will take place from November 8 to 24 with the top two advancing into the semi-finals.
First and foremost, who are the favourites to qualify from Group A?
Given they are widely recognised as Southeast Asia’s second-best team at the moment behind Thailand, many will expect Vietnam to qualify with ease.
Although, on paper, the Vietnamese have a fairly youthful-looking squad with just two players with more than 30 caps to their names, this is a side that has plenty of experience competing with – and doing well – against some of Asia’s best teams at recent age-group tournaments.
The Under-23 team finished runners-up at January’s AFC U-23 Championship and also fourth at Asian Games 2018, and a large number of starlets from those teams, such as Nguyen Quang Hai, Luong Xuan Truong and Nguyen Cong Phuong, are expected to play pivotal roles at this upcoming Suzuki Cup.
Will they face stern resistance from any of their opponents?
Myanmar have made strides in recent years and should be aiming to go far again in 2018, having reached the semi-finals in the previous edition before losing to eventual champions Thailand.
This is, however, a side that is heavily reliant on star striker Aung Thu and it remains to be seen if they have alternative options should the Police Tero man fail to fire after an exhausting season in Thai League 1.
Malaysia have flown under the radar and coach Tan Cheng Hoe has been eager to lower expectations, but they do have plenty of quality and experience and cannot be underestimated.
So, what can Cambodia and Laos hope for?
While they have not progressed at the rate of Myanmar, Cambodia are a side that have regularly shown improvement and there is no reason why they should not be aiming to claim a few scalps along the way, especially with Chan Vathanaka, Thierry Chantha Bin and Keo Sokpheng to call on.
Meanwhile, expectations will not be high for Laos, who are returning after missing out in 2016 for the first time in the tournament’s history, although they have the like of Soukchinda Natphasouk and Phoutthasay Khochalern to cause some problems for the bigger boys.
Which players from each team will be pivotal to their side’s chances?
Nguyen Van Quyet (Vietnam) – Amidst all the young talent in the Vietnam squad, Van Quyet provides an experienced head having played and scored at the past three Suzuki Cups. The Ha Noi star’s proclivity to drift around in the attacking third to find space to carve out openings for his team-mates will give opposition defenders a real headache.
Aung Thu (Myanmar) – In his first season playing overseas, Aung Thu was a revelation in Thai League 1 although his 11 goals were not enough to save Police Tero from relegation. The clinical striker remains one of the region’s biggest names but could be exhausted from a tiring campaign.
Aidil Zafuan (Malaysia) – While he may have been in and out of the national team in recent times, the availability of Aidil Zafuan will be crucial given Malaysia are one of a few sides to have named a fairly-inexperienced team. The Johor Darul Ta’zim centre-back reads the game impeccably and will definitely be busy against some of the region’s top forwards.
Thierry Chantha Bin (Cambodia) – Having had an excellent first year at Terengganu which culminated in a Malaysia Cup final appearance, Chantha Bin can now use this tournament as a platform to show how much he has grown over the past season. With Cambodia expected to come under plenty of fire, the 27-year-old’s ability to protect his backline will also be of importance.
Soukchinda Natphasouk (Laos) –Although still in the early stages of his international career, Soukchinda has already shown he is not the kind to be overawed by the big occasion. His gangly stature and unpredictable style of play could actually see him cause major problems for even the best opposition defenders.
Group A may not be as tough as Group B on paper but there could still be plenty of plot twists over the course of the next couple of weeks. I still expect Vietnam to live up to expectations and finish top but I’m also backing Malaysia to rise to the occasion and pip Myanmar to the second semi-final berth.