Vietnam crowned Southeast Asia's best, Malaysia defy expectations
Ten years after winning their first AFF Suzuki Cup, Vietnam won a second on Saturday, turning the streets of Hanoi and Saigon red with delight as fans celebrated 3-2 aggregate victory over Malaysia.
In the end, Vietnam were just a little too good for their regional rivals over the two legs. And the same was true in the tournament overall. The Golden Stars were consistently the best team from the beginning -- a 3-0 win over Laos -- to the end, a 1-0 second leg victory over Malaysia.
Vietnam had stars such as Nguyen Quang Hai, the best player at the tournament, and capable of pulling the strings in attack at the tender age of 21. They had goalscorers, like Nguyen Anh Duc, whose early second leg volley in Hanoi did so much to deflate Malaysian hopes. After that it was always going to be be hard going. Vietnam also had the best defence in Southeast Asia with just four goals conceded in eight games, and the mighty Moscow-born Dang Van Lam in between the sticks.
Most important of all, the tournament champions had Park Hang-seo on the sidelines -- or "The Korean Hiddink." After taking over the team in 2017, the South Korean has made what has always been a talented team harder to beat. His brand of counter-attacking football, balanced with a fitter and stronger team of players has worked. It is no surprise that he has reached hero status in the country and a documentary on his life that was released into nationwide theatres last week is going to be playing for some time to come.
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Becoming Southeast Asian champions for the second time is something that should be celebrated, but not for too long. Vietnam have the small matter of the Asian Cup in January. The AFC's showpiece event is where the Golden Stars will really get a chance to show how far they gave come.
Group games against Iran, Iraq and Yemen will not be easy, but the team spirit and togetherness that has been forged -- fuelled first by success at under-23 level -- will stand Southeast Asia's champions in good stead on the wider continental stage. Even if January does not go well, there is time for this young team to learn and then improve.
In the end, the regional title is a means to an end, and that end is continental competitiveness.
For Malaysia, they were not quite good enough to crack the puzzle that was the Vietnamese defence in the second leg. Once again against Park's side, the Tigers had the lion's share of the ball but were just not able to find a way through. With the hosts sitting deep, there was no space, and with Vietnam full of energy without possession, there was no time.
But this has been a successful tournament for the Harimau Malaya. Those who are critical of the team in losing, narrowly, to a superior one in the final should recall what expectations were like just a few weeks ago. They should recall what performances have been like in the past few years.
When coach Tan Cheng Hoe said at the start of the AFF Cup that a place in the final was the objective, it seemed a little optimistic. Just getting out of the group would be enough for a team that has struggled for much of this decade but there was much more. Not only did Malaysia achieve that, but they eliminated defending champions Thailand in the semifinals and gave Vietnam a real test over two legs.
It is the way it happened that really impressed however. Under Cheng Hoe, the team is attack-minded and aggressive. There is a defensive core set up with the central pairing working together well for the most part, flanked by exciting full-backs. Holding midfielders have performed with energy and intelligence with speedy and skilful wingers ready to run at defenders and get behind backlines. It has been exciting to watch.
And the nation has been excited and has put aside its recent frostiness to embrace the team with warmth, affection and passion. The nights at the Bukit Jalil with numerous attendances of over 80,000 with an atmosphere off the scale will be the enduring image of the tournament for many.
For Malaysia, the challenge is to keep this fire burning, to allow it to grow and fuel a sustained rise to the top of Southeast Asian football. There is still much to be done but the start has been impressive and magnificent to watch.
Overall, the tournament has been a success with its home and away format producing bigger crowds and better backdrops than usual. In the end, the best team won and Vietnam deserve their party -- but there is plenty for Malaysia to celebrate too.