Could 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup be bereft of Thai stars?

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Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre looks at how this year’s edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup may be missing a handful of Southeast Asia’s biggest names.

With two-time defending champions Thailand handed a tough draw for this year’s AFF Suzuki Cup their hopes of success may well hinge on a tournament that’s not even played in Southeast Asia.

The Thais were slotted in alongside four-time champions Singapore, 2016 finalists Indonesia, Asian Cup-bound Philippines and the playoff winner (either Brunei Darussalam or Timor-Leste) in Group B, with only two of those nations progressing through to the semifinals of the new-look tournament.

As the region’s dominant force and the competition’s most successful nation, many will still be tipping the War Elephants to trample their way through the group – but the story that’s sure to dominate headlines in the lead-up to the opening matches will be the availability of their star trio of players turning out in Japan’s J.League.

To say that Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda and Theerathon Bunmathan are crucial to Thailand’s success is hardly an understatement. Yet, with the FIFA match calendar listing only the period from November 12 to 20 as being set aside for international fixtures, their Japanese clubs are under no pressure to release them for anything other than perhaps the first couple of Suzuki Cup group stage matches.

The J.League takes a break during that same window but with the final two rounds of the season being played on November 24 and December 1, it iss unlikely that Consadole Sapporo, Sanfrecce Hiroshima (both currently sitting in the top four) or Vissel Kobe will want those players missing for what could be a crucial conclusion to the domestic campaign.

Add to that the fact that the Emperor’s Cup will also not conclude until late December and, should their clubs progress through to the pointy end of that tournament, it’s possible Thailand’s star trio may not even be eligible for the knockout stages of the Suzuki Cup.

These kinds of club versus country wrangles have long been commonplace in the established Asian powers such as Iran, Korea Republic, Japan and Australia and – in one sense – it’s something of a positive that Southeast Asia now has the conundrum to contend with as more of the region’s leading stars are playing at a higher level.

For supporters of Thai football though, it would be nothing short of a catastrophe should Chanathip, Teerasil and Theerathon miss part of the Suzuki Cup, and that in turn will greatly enhance the chances of the other four nations in the group as they look to push through to the final four.

Of that quartet, Indonesia appear ideally placed to book one of the top two spots regardless of the issues surrounding Thailand, as coach Luis Milla is tipped to go with a core group of talented youngsters that have been the nucleus of the team in recent matches.

In worrying signs for both the Philippines and Singapore both nations now start their preparations without a head coach in place, with FOX Sports Asia understanding that the Azkals could well be looking to poach a coach currently in place at another Asian-based national team which has impressed in recent times.

Timor-Leste will be under the guidance of the jet-setting Japanese boss Norio Tuskitate, whilst Brunei are likely to be led by Singaporean Stephen Ng and neither will be pushovers should they progress from the playoff.

Over in Group A, the coaching situation is also unsettled with Myanmar yet to announce a permanent successor for the recently departed Gerd Zeise, whilst there have been suggestions that Cambodia may also look to make a switch at the top before the tournament arrives.

Laos have another Singaporean at the helm in Mike Wong but, in having to deal with the fallout from a match-fixing scandal that has gutted the core of the team and reduced the squad’s average age to barely 21, they will face a steep task to progress.

That uncertainty should see Vietnam and Malaysia emerge as heavy favourites to reach the semifinals. But with the group stage being played for the first time on a home-and-away basis, there could well be plenty of upsets along the way.