Thursday, January 11, 2007
Thailand out to reclaim throne
Not so long ago, Thailand's position as South East Asia's number one was virtually cast in stone as an unprecedented run of success cemented the nation's status at the regional summit.
A series of victories at the South East Asian Games football tournament and the Tiger Cup throughout the 1990s and at the turn of the Millennium had the rest of the region battling for the runners-up spot on all but the rarest of occasions.
Seven successive wins in the SEA Games since 1993 plus three successes out of five in the biennial Tiger Cup make Thailand the most dominant team of the last decade-and-a-half within the football-mad region.
However, the Thais - led by former Asian Coach of the Year Chanvit Polchivin
- will not go into this week's impending Asean Championships defending the title. Instead, they enter the event looking to gain revenge and reclaim the trophy from upstarts Singapore.
The tournament, though, has a very different look to the one Raddy Abramovic's team won in front of a sold out National Stadium two years ago with victory over Indonesia.
Title sponsor Tiger Beer - associated with the event since its inauguration in 1996 - withdrew following the 2004 event, leaving the competition without a big-name backer.
The format, too, has been tampered with, the Asean Football Federation forcing Laos, the Philippines, Cambodia, Brunei and Timor Leste into a preliminary qualifying round, from with the Laotians and the Philippines emerged to progress to the eight-team finals.
The finals have also gone under some renovations with Thailand and Singapore co-hosting the group stages before the semi-finals and final are played on a two-legged home-and-away format.
Thailand's hopes of reclaiming the trophy have been given a significant boost with the decision by former Huddersfield Town striker Kiatsuk Senamuang to come out of international retirement and play for the national team once again.
The 33-year-old veteran - who has been instrumental in much of Thailand's success since the mid-90s - ended his two-year exile as Thailand won the King's Cup in December and it is on his experienced shoulders that the country's hopes rest.
"After 2004, I thought I would never be back in the national team but things have changed and I am here again," he said recently.
Known in Thailand as 'Zico' in honour of the legendary Brazilian, Kiatisuk's return is key for a team that boasts much in the way of young, raw talent and their success could hinge on his partnership with youngster Teeratep 'Leesaw' Winothai.
Their chances of progressing from the group stage - where they have been drawn in Group A alongside Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines - are high, with little serious threat likely to be posed from any of the opposing trio.
The same cannot be said for defending champions and co-hosts Singapore, who face a tough ask if they want to successfully hold on to the trophy they won thanks to a 5-2 aggregate scoreline over Indonesia two years ago.
Withe's team will again stand in their way, with the Englishman and his side desperate for revenge two years on as they prepare for the co-hosting of the summer's up-and-coming Asian Cup.
Vietnam, too, will be going into the event with one eye on July's continental championship while Laos will be keen to show their progress from the qualifying round was no fluke.
The Singaporeans at least go into Saturday's opener against Vietnam with a win under their belts after a comfortable 4-1 hammering of the Philippines at the weekend, a success that saw goals from Daniel Benett, Khairul Amri and a brace by Indra Sahdan Daud seal victory for Avramovic's team.
But with three of the region's stronger nations drawn together, something has to give in Group B and Vietnam coach Alfred Riedl is adamant it will not be his team who are eliminated at the first opportunity.
"Singapore, Indonesia or Vietnam will go home," said the Austrian, who is now in his third stint as team coach. "It will not be us. We will not be one of them."
Riedl guided Vietnam to the final in 1998, where they lost to Singapore thanks to a freak goal in Hanoi, and he is determined to make an impact again almost nine years later.
"My target is to reach the final," he said. "The most difficult part will be reaching the last four in Singapore.
"It is a very difficult group. Qualifying from that group could be tougher than reaching the final. We have to make the last four and then we have a good chance to reach the final."
The Asean Championships kick-off on Friday in Bangkok when Malaysia face the Philippines and Thailand play Myanmar, with Group B starting on Saturday with the clash between Laos and Indonesia, which is followed by Singapore's meeting with Vietnam.
The first leg of the semi-finals will be held on January 23 and 24 with the return on January 27 and 28. The final will kick-off on January 31 with the second leg on February 4.
Stick with ESPNsoccernet for full coverage of the tournament: Checkout a full breakdown of the fixtures and once the event is underway check back for all the latest results and full stats.