The AFF Suzuki Cup kicks off on Saturday with eight of the region’s top nations vying to become the champions of Southeast Asia.
In this preview we look at Group A, which includes 2014 winners Thailand, 2012 champions Singapore, and three-time semifinalists Philippines who will be taking their first turn as group stage hosts.
THAILAND (2014: Champions)
The War Elephants are the only Southeast Asian side to have reached the final round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying, where they have struggled with a draw and four losses.
But Thailand may be inspired by their recent 2-2 draw against Australia in the team’s emotional first appearance since the passing of the country’s beloved king last month. In that match, coach Kiatisuk Senamuang unveiled a 3-4-1-2 formation that stymied the Socceroos and fans can expect the same tactics on display at the Philippine Sports Stadium.
With star midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin leading the attack with his dangerous dribbling and passes and ace striker Teerasil Dangda up top, Thailand should be considered strong favorites to retain their title.
PHILIPPINES (2014: Semifinalists)
After three straight trips to the semifinals, the Azkals will be eager to earn a fourth knockout stage appearance with what should be a passionate home crowd lending their support as the country hosts its first group stage.
With an AFF-best FIFA ranking of 124, head coach Thomas Dooley will be expected to take his side to the finals that have eluded them since 2010. He’ll need to do so without striker Javier Patino and defender Daisuke Sato, two key players who were unable to get permission from their clubs to participate in the tournament.
The team will need to reply on the leadership of veteran attacker Stephan Schrock, whose years of experience in Germany will prove vital to a side that will be coming off a recent friendly win against Kyrgyzstan.
INDONESIA (2014: 3rd Place, Group A)
Garuda have the potential to be one of the surprise packages of the tournament, having only seen their year-long FIFA-imposed suspension lifted in May. The squad has clicked surprisingly well in recent friendlies, which included a 3-0 win against Malaysia in September and a 3-2 defeat at Vietnam last week.
Captain Boaz Solossa will need to make do up front without his usual partner, Irfan Bachdim, who was forced to withdraw from the squad after severely injuring his ankle in a training accident. He’ll need the creativity of midfielders Evan Dimas and Stefano Lilipaly more than ever if they are to escape a stacked group featuring the last two champions.
Results may depend on whether or not the back line can improve their communication and how well the midfielders and strikers can coordinate, but despite lackluster form in the last two Suzuki Cups there is a glimmer of hope that the region’s most populous nation can insert themselves into the title chance.
SINGAPORE (2014: 3rd Place, Group B)
The 2012 champions have had two years to reflect on the 3-1 loss to rivals Malaysia which saw them bounced out of the group stage, and they will head into the tournament knowing that they are decided underdogs in what has been dubbed as the tournament’s Group of Death.
Head coach V. Sundramoorthy prefers a conservative 4-4-2, but his veteran-heavy lineup has struggled to score in recent friendlies with only two goals from their last five matches, including a narrow 1-0 win over minnows Cambodia.
The Lions’ chances could come down to the performance of defensive veterans Baihakki Khaizan and Daniel Bennett, who at a combined age of 70 may struggle against the pacy players boasted by their opponents. Up top, either striker Khairul Amri will need to come up big in front of the goal or his teammate Safuwan Baharudin will need to take up the mantle of Singapore’s new talisman.
SCHEDULE (All times UTC+8)
16:30 Thailand vs. Indonesia (Philippine Sports Stadium)
20:00 Philippines vs. Singapore (Philippine Sports Stadium)
16:30 Thailand vs. Singapore (Philippine Sports Stadium)
20:00 Indonesia vs. Philippines (Philippine Sports Stadium)
20:00 Singapore vs. Indonesia (Rizal Memorial Stadium)
20:00 Philippines vs. Thailand (Philippine Sports Stadium)