Missing Thai stars hand AFF boost to Vietnam

Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre gives his view on how the absence of Thailand’s foreign-based stars will affect their chances at the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup.

Whether the call came from the new coach, the federation or from the clubs involved, the fact that Thailand will be without their four most recognisable stars for the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup means that the title is now Vietnam’s to lose.

As I wrote several months ago the fact that only the first part of the group stage falls in a FIFA window meant that it was always going to be a struggle to obtain the services of the three Japan-based players in Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerathon Bunmathan and Teerasil Dangda.

Goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan, who has had a torrid time at Thai-owned Belgian second division side OH Leuven, has also been excused as his team sits bottom of the ladder with just a single win through seven matches and are fighting to avoid the drop to the amateur leagues.

Whilst there’s no lack of depth in Thai football there’s equally no question that removing your best goalkeeper, defender, attacking midfielder and forward is bound to have some kind of an impact.

As new coach, Milovan Rajevac, noted though in speaking to the AFF Suzuki Cup website the absence of the star quartet does at least open the door for others to impress ahead of January’s Asian Cup.

If, as has been suggested, that includes a core group from the U23 squad that crashed out in the group stage of the recent Asian Games then that tournament has served its purpose in trying to establish a transition from the youth teams through to the senior one.

It all has the feel that Rajevac will likely use the Suzuki Cup as a test event for the Asian Cup and whilst that’s within his rights to do so, you have to wonder what any kind of struggles at the Southeast Asian showpiece could do for confidence heading into the continental one.

With the FIFA window falling between November 12-20 the quintet of Thai stars would only have been available for the group stage match with Indonesia, but given that’s likely to be the decisive fixture there must surely have been consideration given to having at least the Japan-based stars available for that match.

Additionally, they could have then been free to join the squad for the second leg of the semifinals as well as any potentially for the final with the J.League finishing on December 1.

You can also mount a good argument that both Vissel Kobe and especially Sanfrecce Hiroshima may have been happy to release Teerathon and Teerasil respectively given their struggles to win a place in the starting XI at that pair.

Either way, with the decision made the tournament will be missing some of its biggest names with the Philippines goalkeeper Neil Etheridge also highly unlikely to make the trip. So from a situation where Thailand were considered strong favourites to defend their crown there’s now two or three other nations with genuine designs on the title.

Indonesia have shown that their vibrant young side is more than capable of matching the regional powers, whilst Malaysia have the individual quality to also progress deep into the competition, but the one nation that is now surely right in the frame to lift the trophy in mid-December is Vietnam.

Losing the tempo-setting midfielder Nguyen Tuan Anh to yet another injury is a blow, but with the coach finally freeing the side of the conservative tactical approach that hampered their attacking threat early in his reign this team will take a lot of stopping.

Defensively sound and well organised they will always be under Park Hang-seo but with the riches of individual quality that few others nations possess if they are allowed to play with freedom going forward then it’s a question of how will other nations be able to stop them.

Nguyen Quang Hai is making a firm case to take Chanathip’s mantle as the biggest star of Southeast Asian football, whilst Nguyen Cong Phuong, Luong Xuan Truong and Vu Van Thanh offer a fine balance of technical ability, the smarts to control the tempo of a match and a cutting edge when going forward.

With former heavyweights Singapore on the wane and the Philippines perhaps not quite ready to make the leap to the next level, Vietnam will fancy their chances against either Indonesia or Thailand in the semis and there won’t be many then backing against them in the final.

Thailand have rolled the dice in choosing to omit their leading stars and the door has now firmly been opened for Vietnam to claim what would be just their second regional title a decade after their breakthrough victory on home soil.

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