Thailand ready big guns in quest to reclaim AFF Suzuki Cup with trio also in the hunt

After establishing themselves as Southeast Asia's leading team with back-to-back AFF Suzuki Cup triumphs in 2014 and 2016, Thailand were dethroned three years ago by a talented and hungry Vietnam outfit.

As the Suzuki Cup returns on Sunday, following a year's delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the War Elephants are going all out to reclaim the trophy after including a host of big guns in their squad.

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Japan-based duo Chanathip Songkrasin and Theerathon Bunmathan, as well as OH Leuven goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan, headline the list of star names returning after missing out in 2018, which has immediately installed the War Elephants as the favourites to win Group A.

Nonetheless, the second semifinal berth on offer in the group appears very much up for grabs, with Philippines, Myanmar and hosts Singapore all having good reason to believe they can finish inside the top two.

Based on performances in recent editions of the competition, Philippines should be the favourites given they have reached the final four of the past five tournaments but this will be the first time in over a decade that they will be without the Younghusband brothers James and Phil, who led the Azkals' charge for so long but have since retired.

New firepower has been introduced in the form of the naturalised Spanish-born Bienvenido Maranon, while captain Stephan Schrock should once again be pivotal.

Meanwhile, Singapore -- with home advantage and a squad that has shown improvement under Japanese coach Tatsuma Yoshida -- will be leaning to the leadership of Hariss Harun and the goals of Ikhsan Fandi, while Myanmar remain an unknown quantity given their domestic season has been on hiatus since the pandemic escalated.

Lastly, as the minnows of the group, Timor-Leste are perhaps the one team not expecting to reach the semis but will be looking to display improvement against superior opposition.

Group A fixtures

Dec. 5: Timor-Leste vs. Thailand (5.30 p.m. local time), Singapore vs. Myanmar (8.45 p.m. local time)
Dec. 8: Myanmar vs. Timor-Leste (5.30 p.m. local time), Philippines vs. Singapore (8.30 p.m. local time)
Dec 11: Timor-Leste vs. Philippines (5.30 p.m. local time), Thailand vs. Myanmar (8.30 p.m. local time)
Dec 14: Philippines vs. Thailand (5.30 p.m. local time), Singapore vs. Timor-Leste (8.30 p.m. local time)
Dec 18: Thailand vs. Singapore (8.30 p.m. local time), Myanmar vs. Philippines (8.30 p.m. local time)

What they said

Thailand coach Alexandre Polking: "We are happy to be here and are trying to be at our best. It's not easy to play in a bubble, trying to get our players in the best condition with a lot of games in a short period of a time.

"We are motivated and know the prestige of the tournament. We have a clear target to get the trophy -- that's why we are here."

Philippines coach Stewart Hall: "I'm not a great believer in pressure. It's more about how you handle things. None of the teams has had it easy because of the difficult times that we face.

"We have a new squad, with a mixture of some young boys that have come up from the youth teams and established squad players, so we have to look at getting the right blend in the team."

Myanmar coach Antoine Hey: "We're happy that the Suzuki Cup 2020 is finally being played after a year's delay. It's definitely a huge tournament in the region.

"We've had difficulties along the way because we have no had league matches in Myanmar for the last one and a half years. Additionally, with a couple of players retiring from the national team, it has forced us to make a new beginning."

Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida: "Although we're playing as the hosts, we cannot say if we will become champions. The most important game is the first game and we have to respect Myanmar.

"The boys don't feel any pressure. What they feel is the supporters always being behind them. So this is actually good for the team."

Timor-Leste coach Fabio Magrao: "We will probably be the youngest team in the tournament with an average age of 20. Since I took over, I have been trying to build a new generation of players with good character.

"We have players with very good quality. What I have to do is teach them to read and understand the game. We know our reality but I guess we can hope to be the surprises of the group."

Prediction: Thailand should comfortably top the group. Given how Philippines and Myanmar are perhaps both teams in transition at the moment, Singapore could just end nine years of failure by joining the Thais in the semifinals.