Five things to watch for as Vietnam's V.League 1 returns

Fans will want to see if Nguyen Quang Hai can resurrect some of last year's magic for Hanoi FC. Minh Hoang/EPA-EFE

V.League 1 makes its long-anticipated return on Friday with early frontrunners Ho Chi Minh City FC taking on Hai Phong at Lach Tray Stadium.

The Vietnamese top flight was stopped abruptly in March due to coronavirus with last season's runners-up Ho Chi Minh City leading the table with two wins after just two matchdays were held without spectators.

Football frenzy has already returned to the country when the Vietnamese National Cup kicked off last week. With the resumption of domestic play, here are five things ASEAN football fans can look out for during the 2020 V.League 1 season.

1. New format for return

The rest of the season will be held in two phases as Vietnamese Professional Football (VPF) have changed the league's regular home-and-away format.

The first stage will be round-robin play from June 5 to August 2 -- during which each of the 14 clubs play each another once. After 13 matchdays, the top eight teams will be pooled into one group to vie for the title and regional qualification, while the bottom six will battle in Group B to avoid the single relegation slot. This is a change from the the usual two teams.

The VPF will also implement FIFA's recommendation of five substitutions for each team per match as a temporary measure. This move hopes to address concerns over potential fatigue as players play more games in a shortened span. Each team will have a maximum of three opportunities to make substitutions in order to reduce disruptions during the 90 minutes.

2. The making of Cong Phuong 2.0?

It was with much fanfare that Vietnam international Nguyen Cong Phuong made a loan switch to K League 1 outfit Incheon United in February 2019. Seeing very little action in South Korea, he took a plane to Belgium to sign on with Sint-Truiden. His European stint wasn't any better either with the forward making just a single substitute appearance during his six-month stay.

Ambitious Ho Chi Minh City then stepped in to negotiate a loan deal with Cong Phuong's parent club Hoang Anh Gia Lai at the start of 2020. The player has so far managed to repay the faith shown in him netting for the first time in 387 days in a 2-2 draw with Myanmar's Yangon United in their 2020 AFC Cup opener in February.

The 25-year-old was on target again in his new club's 3-2 win over Singapore Premier League side Hougang United two weeks later while also being key to the club's good start in the domestic front before football came to a grinding halt. Whether the Vietnamese superstar will continue reinventing himself or not when the league returns will be something to keep an eye on.

3. More of Quang Hai's brilliance

Hanoi FC's most-promising talent Nguyen Quang Hai is the player who will be at the centre of attention when the league resumes and with fans expecting the 23-year-old to keep those magical moments going on the field.

Last year was especially productive for the Vietnamese wizard as he won the V.League and National Cup titles while taking the Purple-Yellows to a historic finals appearance in the AFC Cup, where they narrowly lost out to South Korea's 4.25 SC. Quang Hai also led the national team to the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup and put on some master classes in the 2022 World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers for the Golden Dragons.

This year will be a different game for Quang Hai with Hanoi only fighting for honours in Vietnam after failing to meet the AFC licensing criteria needed to compete in Asia. He will also shoulder the responsibility of taking his nation to the next stage of the World Cup qualifiers and will also be expected to play a pivotal role in their attempt for a successful title defence at the year-end AFF Suzuki Cup.

4. A chance to impress Park

The AFF Suzuki Cup will be at the top of national team head coach Park Hang-seo's priorities for the year as the celebrated South Korean manager scouts talent from the league to strengthen his squad.

These matches will serve as a stage for several Vietnamese players to impress Park before the World Cup Qualifiers and the 2020 AFF Cup resumes. One such player is Hanoi veteran Nguyen Van Quyet, who has not featured at the international level, since captaining Vietnam to the ASEAN title in December 2018.

With Park hinting at a roster refresh ahead of the Southeast Asian championship, youngsters like Than Quang Ninh midfielder Nguyen Hai Huy, Ho Chi Minh City winger Vo Huy Toan and Viettel attacker Van Hao Duong might get a look if they can put in a good showing in this season's V.League 1.

5. Comebacks from injuries

The break from football may have come as a blessing in disguise for some players who might otherwise have missed the bulk of the 2020 season because of injuries.

Among those is young centre-back Tran Dinh Trong, who has been recovering from a knee ligament injury since May 2019. The 23-year-old Vietnam international returned to light training and could feature for Hanoi before the end of the campaign.

HAGL midfielder Luong Xuan Truong is also returning to full fitness after sustaining a serious injury in September 2019. The star was expected to miss out on the remainder of the World Cup qualification campaign, but with the international matches originally scheduled for March now postponed, the former Buriram United man could still return to help Vietnam's bid to progress to the third round of the qualifiers.