AFF Suzuki Cup Final (First Leg) | Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok | Wed 17 Dec | 8pm
A battle for the ages, literally. Thailand’s vibrant, youthful team host Malaysia’s grizzled, experienced veterans.
Thailand start the final as overwhelming favourites, mainly because they have already beaten the same opponents in the group stages, so the mental advantage is theirs. “But football is played on the pitch!” you might say. No matter, as Thailand also hold the edge as the only unbeaten team left in the tournament, reaching the final via some whizzing attacking play and smooth movement.
Coach Kiatisuk Senamuang included 11 members of the Thai Under-23 side that reached the Asian Games semi-finals in his AFF Suzuki Cup squad, and they have been a revelation. 22-year-old Charyl Chappuis and 21-year-old Chanatip Songkrasin have undoubtedly been their most hyped players, while Peerapat Notechaiya, Narubodin Weerawatnodom and Sarach Yooyen are just three of their team-mates who have flown under the radar. Sarach has completed the most passes and taken the most touches in this Thai side, while Peerapat – a full-back – has fired off five shots so far.
In contrast, Malaysia have assembled players from the other end of the age spectrum. Captain Shukor Adan is 35-years-old, while Zubir Azmi and Fadhli Shas were the only Under-23 Malaysians on the My Dinh Stadium’s pitch last week. Then again, the Harimau Malaya have already proved that old is gold, beating Singapore and Vietnam despite having the odds heavily stacked against them.
If Malaysia have one thing going for them, it’s momentum. Written off as also-rans before the tournament began, they managed to advance to the semi-finals before thrashing Vietnam in their own backyard to reach the final. Despite letting the occasional mistake creep in (particularly in defence), they have progressed steadily since the dire opening 0-0 draw with Myanmar, and will need a repeat of their Hanoi performance in Bangkok to stay in contention before the Kuala Lumpur return leg on December 20th.
The War Elephants might not be able to call upon the services of Kirati Keawsombut and Adisorn Promrak due to injury, but they will welcome striker Adisak Kraisorn back from suspension.
In the other camp, Safee Sali and Shukor have been struggling with injury but were cleared to participate in the match in a press conference earlier today. Coach Dollah Salleh has indicated that he will start with the same line-up that defeated Vietnam 4-2, telling the New Straits Times “I will field my best available players, but those who played in Hanoi will have a brighter chance of starting in Bangkok.” This would mean it is likely that S. Kunanlan will remain at right-back, while Indra Putra Mahayuddin will continue to partner Norshahrul Idlan Talaha up front.
Key battle: Charyl Chappuis vs. Safiq Rahim
This battle of the midfield maestros should be an exciting one. Charyl Chappuis is only 22 years old but has already proven to be an influential member of this Thailand squad. Technically, the Suphanburi FC midfielder should partner defensive midfielder Sarach Yooyen, but his team’s attacking inclination has often seen him bursting forward into the box. He has fired 10 shots in four matches so far, scoring twice including the second goal in Thailand’s 3-2 win over Malaysia in the group stages.
Safiq entered the tournament as a substitute following his return from injury, but soon took control of games, starting with that aforementioned group stage loss. He scored a fine solo goal and assisted Amri Yahyah’s opener, and went on to convert three penalties in three games, two of which were under intense pressure from Singaporean and Vietnamese fans. He’s not particularly known as a goalscorer but has scored from 100% of the shots he’s taken, while making the most passes (196) and the most touches (250) of any Malaysian, reinforcing his importance to his team.
If Dollah starts the match with a Safiq-Badhri Radzi midfield partnership, the 27-year-old is expected to be the more defensive of the duo, which would put him in direct confrontation with Chappuis. The Swiss-born playmaker is hardly the War Elephants’ only attacking threat, but if Safiq manages to shut him down, half the battle might already be won.
The head coaches
Kiatisuk Senamuang was in the last Thai team to win the Southeast Asia’s premier trophy, scoring in the penalty shootout that decided the 2002 final to pick up his third AFF cup (having won in 1996 and 2000). Twelve years later, the legend nicknamed “Zico” is now aspiring to become the first person to win the cup as a player and as a coach. Interestingly enough, he also scored the winner in the 1-0 win over Malaysia in the inaugural edition in 1996.
Dollah missed that final due to injury, and he will be raring to finally get his hands on the trophy, albeit as a coach. The former national striker’s spell in charge of the national team has not always gone swimmingly, leading the team to just three wins in ten matches, but his management and faith in his players have seen them improve by leaps and bounds since the tournament started. Before the cup began, Malaysia had not beaten Singapore and Vietnam away from home for 12 and 13 years respectively. Now they have done both, Dollah is hungry for more, saying: “I want to create history... I broke a record twice in this Suzuki Cup and I want to do it again against Thailand.”
Meanwhile, Kiatisuk has downplayed his side’s chances in the final, but he knows the importance of winning his country’s first title since 2002, saying: “I have an impressive record against Malaysia as a coach and a player and I want it to stay that way.”
Facts and figures
- Thailand have kept three successive clean sheets, the most in the tournament, and conceded just three goals, the fewest in the tournament.
- Prakit Deeprom has recorded the most assists in the tournament – 3.
- Thailand are the only side to have used all 22 members of their AFF Suzuki Cup squad.
- Malaysia have the worst disciplinary record at the tournament (10 yellow cards, 1 red card), and have conceded more than twice as many fouls as their Thai counterparts thus far (95:46).
- Despite being dropped for Malaysia’s last match, Khairul Fahmi Che Mat still has the record of the most saves in the tournament (19). Thailand’s Kawin Thamsatchanan is second with 11.
- If Safiq Rahim scores in the final, he will become the outright top scorer of the AFF Suzuki Cup (currently tied with Vietnam’s Le Cong Vinh with four goals).
It will be a close affair, and a score draw might be on the cards to set up a tense second leg in Kuala Lumpur. 2-2.
(Photo: Erwin Aszuwanni/asiana.my)