Chanathip masterclass hands Thailand advantage over defending champions Vietnam

As a two-time AFF Suzuki Cup champion and Most Valuable Player in 2014 and 2016, Chanathip Songkrasin's absence in the last edition of the tournament not only paved the way for the rise of a new star but allowed Thailand to be dethroned as kings of Southeast Asia.

With the War Elephants determined to regain their crown this year, Chanathip and his teammates could not have chosen a better occasion to remind everyone they could still be the side to beat in Southeast Asia.

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Against reigning champions Vietnam who boasted star playmaker Nguyen Quang Hai, the man who succeeded him as the tournament's MVP in 2018, Chanathip produced a scintillating display with two goals to hand his side a 2-0 win in the first leg of their semifinal at Singapore's National Stadium on Thursday.

It was the kind of talismanic display that the Thais sorely missed three years ago as they surrendered their title without even reaching the final, but their captain was keen to deflect the praise to the entire team.

"I'm very happy to score the goals and help the team take the win in this first leg, but it was all down to the team effort and not just me," Chanathip told ESPN.

"It's because of this team, with the belief we have in ourselves and from our coach. Of course, this is only the first step and we're only halfway there so it's important to stay focus.

"Yes, the first goal came from a mistake but it also happened from our pressing, while the second goal was a great team goal."

Thailand's opener certainly had a touch of fortune to it as Thanawat Suengchitthawon's attempted through-ball looked destined to be intercepted by Nguyen Phong Hong Duy, only for an untimely slip from the Vietnam wingback to send Chanathip racing through to score.

Their second however was a work of art as Chanathip exchanged a couple of devastating one-twos with Teerasil Dangda and then Sarach Yooyen to carve apart the opposition defence and notch his second.

The Thais could have claimed an even handsomer win after they were awarded a penalty six minutes from the end, only for Chanathip to send his penalty straight down the middle and allow Vietnam goalkeeper Tran Nguyen Manh to make the save.

In what proved to be a feisty encounter that threatened to boil over on several occasions, there was even some gamesmanship from Vietnam captain Que Ngoc Hai, who whispered in Chanathip's ear as he was awaiting to take the spotkick.

"He said to me 'no goal, my friend'," revealed the Consadole Sapporo man, when asked what Ngoc Hai had said to him.

"I apologise to my team for missing the penalty but these things happen. It does nothing to change my confidence for the second leg."