Suzuki Cup hopefuls beware – a Vietnamese stampede is coming

When it comes to 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup favouritism, Thailand have rightly been garnering most of the attention. But, as John Duerden explains, there is another nation the rest should be wary of when the tournament kicks off next month...

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It is completely fair that Thailand regularly earn top billing in Southeast Asian football, at least in the international arena.

The War Elephants have been doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to clearing the jungle that divides the region from the rest of the footballing world.

(There is a) clear expectation Thailand will win the Suzuki Cup. But just maybe, there is another contender the rest should fear

Being the first ASEAN team to reach the final round of qualification for the World Cup since 2002 is admirable and something to be celebrated. Thailand have progressed and shown they can mix it with the rest of the continent.

Results haven't been great in the final round, but performances for the most part have been encouraging. Well, they were until the recent 4-0 loss at Iraq which left them propping up their six-team group.

Yet their overall progress has added up to the clear expectation that Thailand will win the AFF Suzuki Cup for the second successive time. They were the team the others wanted to avoid in the group stage.

But maybe, just maybe, there is another contender the rest should fear. That would be Vietnam. The Golden Stars are looking good.

A 5-2 friendly win over North Korea earlier this month was as fine a performance as you will see from an ASEAN team all year. Even better, the men in red came from behind to beat a team that has played at two World Cups and qualified for the past two Asian Cups.

Vietnam in action against North Korea. Photo: Vietnam Football Federation

The Chollima brought virtually their strongest squad to Vietnam and, while they can be unpredictable when it comes to friendly games, DPRK expected to win. Such expectations were raised when they took an early lead through striker Pak Kwang Ryong, who has been based in Europe for five years.

What happened next then took most observers by surprise.

This Vietnamese team is made of stern stuff and retook the lead just after the hour – and with some style.

Vietnam started to take control of one of Asia's better teams. Midfielder Nguyen Tuan Anh demonstrated excellent close control inside a crowded area to guide a low shot to the bottom corner to equalise just after the half hour.

The hunger of the hosts was there for all to see seven minutes into the second half as Nguyen Van Toan robbed the visitors of possession and squared for Le Cong Vinh to sweep home. Within seconds Pak equalised, but this Vietnamese team is made of stern stuff and retook the lead just after the hour – and with some style.

Luong Xuan Trong chipped the ball over the DPRK defence for the running Vu Van Thanh to chest down and then volley home. Trong then curled home Vietnam's fourth from outside the area with six minutes left. It was another fine strike and if that wasn't enough, there was still time for Pham Thanh Luong to sweep a fifth into the top corner.

The passing and running of the Vietnamese team was too much for the more experienced opposition, with Trong imperious in the middle at times, pulling the strings behind the frontline. 

Continued on the next page, including highlights of Vietnam's impressive performance against North Korea