Vietnam, Malaysia renew AFF Suzuki Cup rivalry with Indonesia waiting to capitalise

Given they faced off against one another in the final of the previous AFF Suzuki Cup, it might seem like a formality that reigning champions Vietnam and 2018 runners-up Malaysia will advance from Group B into the semifinals at the upcoming tournament.

Both certainly have reason to be optimistic in their prospects.

Since becoming champions of Southeast Asia for only the second time three years ago, Vietnam have gone on to establish themselves as the number one team in the region and are the only ASEAN outfit still competing in the final round of Asian qualifiers for next year's FIFA World Cup.

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Meanwhile, while Malaysia are not quite at the same level as the Vietnamese, they have the added benefit of stability with coach Tan Cheng Hoe soon to begin his fifth year at the helm, as well as a talented group of players who should have enough to at least finish inside the top two of the group.

Nonetheless, the mood in the Vietnam camp is understandably low following a run of six consecutive defeats -- admittedly against top-level opponents -- in the World Cup qualifiers, while Malaysia's preparations for the Suzuki Cup have been hampered by the domestic season finishing just six days before they begin their campaign.

Should either slip up, a trio of upstarts is waiting in the wings to pounce with Indonesia the likeliest candidates.

With a rich history in the competition, having featured in five finals previously without ever emerging as champions, the Indonesians are currently in a transitional phase but have a coach boasting plenty of experience in Shin Tae-yong, who coached South Korea at the 2018 World Cup.

And while Group B's final two teams Cambodia and Laos are traditionally not among the genuine contenders, having never qualified out of the group stage, they both boast exciting raw talent that has the potential to pull off an upset against the bigger boys on their day.

Group B fixtures

Dec. 6: Cambodia vs. Malaysia (5.30 p.m. local time), Laos vs. Vietnam (8.30 p.m. local time)
Dec. 9: Malaysia vs. Laos (5.30 p.m. local time), Indonesia vs. Cambodia (8.30 p.m. local time)
Dec. 12: Laos vs. Indonesia (5.30 p.m. local time), Vietnam vs. Malaysia (8.30 p.m. local time)
Dec. 15: Cambodia vs. Laos (5.30 p.m. local time), Indonesia vs. Vietnam (8.30 p.m. local time)
Dec. 19: Malaysia vs. Indonesia (8.30 p.m. local time), Vietnam vs. Cambodia (8.30 p.m. local time)

What they said

Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo: "Losing all six games so far in the final qualification for the World Cup has had a big effect on the players. Mentally, our team is in a very difficult moment and there's also the pressure of defending our trophy.

"There are many good teams in this tournament so we can't make many predictions, but we will try our best to get a good result."

Malaysia coach Tan Cheng Hoe: "We just arrived (on Friday) and the (Malaysia) Cup final was only played on Nov. 30. We tried our best to assemble as many players (as early as possible) at our training camp in Kuala Lumpur.

"As a coach, you have to deal with whatever situation that is dealt to you, be optimistic and believe in the players around you."

Indonesia coach Shin Tae-yong: "We are in a group with many strong opponents, including the defending champions in Vietnam, our eternal rivals Malaysia, and two other good teams in Cambodia and Laos.

"We will do our best focusing on one match at a time right from the very beginning, in the hope of achieving what we want to out of this tournament."

Cambodia coach Ryu Hirose: "Obviously we have one eye on preparing for the 2023 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Phnom Penh. As such, along with our senior players, we've also brought some potential prospects and I hope the younger players show us a good performance.

"But it doesn't mean we're just going to use the young players -- they have to earn their place in the team still. We want to focus on doing well at this tournament too, and not just look towards the SEA Games."

Laos coach V. Selvaraj: "We have a very big task in our first game and we're aware of Vietnam's quality. Our boys are looking forward to this tournament, especially the young ones, as it's a big competition for them.

"I agree that we are a better team than at the last edition, but playing against Vietnam is a different situation. We will try our best to compete with every team we play against."

Prediction: Although they have not had much joy on the World Cup qualifying scene, Vietnam still have enough quality to dominate at regional level and should be raring to use the tournament as an avenue to rediscover some form.

While competition between the other teams is closer, Malaysia should be able to make full use of their experience to hold off the rest and join the Vietnamese in the semifinals.