Southeast Asia Vietnam

OPINION: 2021 V.League 1 Season Predictions

With the celebrations yet to die down following Hanoi FC’s third-consecutive Vietnamese Super Cup triumph, the men in purple must retain their focus as the 2021 V.League 1 season is just over the horizon. Hanoi will stroll out in the opening match of the new V.League 1 season, with Chu Dinh Nghiem’s men set to take on Duoc Nam Ha Nam Dinh at the latter’s Thien Truong Stadium this Friday. But how are the 14 clubs across Vietnam are preparing themselves for the new season and how will they fare? Will Viettel FC retain their crown? Or will Hanoi reclaim their dominance over football in the country? Football Tribe Asia’s Krishna Sadhana will try his hand in predicting how the 2021 V.League 1 season will turn out.

Like the 2020 season, the 2021 season will come in two stages – the 14 teams play each other once, before the league splits into a championship group (filled by the top 6 teams after the first half of the season) and a relegation group (filled by the bottom 8 teams after the first half of the season).

The title contenders

Having won their first title in 22 years, Viettel are surely eager to retain their crown as they seek to resurrect their dominance over Vietnamese football. Personnel-wise, the Red Tornado had retained a good portion of their key players in Bui Tien Dung, Que Ngoc Hai, Ho Khac Ngoc, Nguyen Trong Hoang, Caique Lemes, and Tran Nguyen Manh. Bruno Cantanhede’s defection to cross-town rivals Hanoi was the only notable departure for Viettel, however they had acted quickly by replacing Bruno with Pedro Paulo, the former Sai Gon FC striker being one of the two Golden Boot winners of the 2020 V.League 1 season.

Hanoi have also retained a good portion of their key men for the 2021 season and once again they should challenge Viettel for the crown. The likes of Nguyen Van Quyet, Nguyen Quang Hai, Do Hung Dung, and Doan Van Hau are set to don the purple of Hanoi once again, while the departure of Rimario Gordon and Pape Omar Faye were offset by the recruitment of both Bruno and Geovane Magno.

Meanwhile, the two Ho Chi Minh City clubs are set to challenge their Hanoian counterparts for league glory as well. Ho Chi Minh City FC, having finished at a disappointing 5th place in 2020, had brought in highly-rated head coach Alexandre Polking who had won plaudits for his attacking style of football at Thai League 1 giants True Bangkok United. Vietnamese-American midfielder Lee Nguyen finally made the switch to the Red Battleship after being continuously linked with them, while Ho Tuan Tai is set to bring spice to the Ho Chi Minh City midfield.

Having dismantled their squad over the off-season, Sai Gon FC have bounced back and were reborn with J.League DNA coursing through their veins. The men in pink have signed a partnership with J.League 1 side FC Tokyo and underneath the stewardship of new club president Tran Hoa Binh they have recruited a number of J.League-experienced players. Veteran midfielder Daisuke Matsui was brought in from Yokohama FC, being handed the captain’s armband on his way in. Former FC Gifu man Hiroyuki Takasaki and former Tochigi SC player Woo Sang-ho were brought in as well, before another former FC Gifu player, Ryutaro Karube, completed Sai Gon’s foreign quota. Karube was well-versed in Southeast Asian football, having represented Perseru Serui (Indonesia), FLC Thanh Hoa (Vietnam), Kuala Lumpur FA (Malaysia), and Thai duo Chainat Hornbill and Suphanburi FC throughout his career.

Sai Gon had also brought in some experienced heads in Nguyen Trung Dai Loc and Do Merlo as they embark on their first-ever Asian campaign in the 2021 AFC Cup.

Top half chasers

Speaking about Thanh Hoa, the club have rebranded themselves as Dong A Thanh Hoa with new investors from the Dong A Group and with UEFA Champions League-winning manager Ljupko Petrovic back at the helm, they could have a decent shout of breaking into the championship group. The V.League 1’s all-time top scorer Hoang Vu Samson is still there and he could be looking to establish a deadly partnership with Jamaican striker Chevaughn Walsh, who had scored 10 goals for Hoang Anh Gia Lai in the 2020 season.

Becamex Binh Duong, freshly rebranding themselves from red to purple, are another side who could potentially land themselves in the championship group. Phan Thanh Hung had brought good times to both Hanoi and Than Quang Ninh and he has gone South for the latest stop in his career. Thanh Hung inherited a decent-looking squad with the likes of Nguyen Tien Linh, Ho Sy Gap, and To Van Vu all raring to go, while American midfielder Victor Mansaray makes his return to Binh Duong after two years away.

HAGL’s fearsome home record earned them a spot in the championship group last year but their form tailed off significantly once they knew that they were safe from relegation. Club legend Kiatisuk Senamuang was convinced out of his sabbatical to turn things around at Pleiku, and although “Coach Zico” had lost Chevaughn to Thanh Hoa, the return of the prodigal son that is Nguyen Cong Phuong could entice some excitement within this HAGL squad. HAGL are renowned for creating a crop of Vietnamese talent and with both Cong Phuong and Luong Xuan Truong back together again, expect some excitement from the Central Highlands men, especially with the arrival of Washington Brandao from Petaling Jaya City.

The championship group will only have 6 slots and I predict the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City quartet will take up four of those spots. The likes of Thanh Hoa, Binh Duong, and HAGL will fight it out for the last two spots, however there are two more teams who I think could have a good chance of making it into the championship group – SHB Da Nang and Topenland Binh Dinh.

Da Nang had prepared themselves well for the upcoming season, arming themselves with Hedipo from Binh Duong and Rafaelson from Nam Dinh, both very capable strikers. The likes of Ha Duc Chinh and Dang Anh Tuan are still with the club and the men in orange are definitely seeking to improve on their disappointing 2020 season.

Newly promoted Binh Dinh could become this year’s dark horses and while Hong Linh Ha Tinh were lucky to have finished in the championship group – their form in the second half of the season is pure relegation form – I think with the additional funds from Topenland Group, Binh Dinh are capable of holding their own quite well. Duong Thanh Hao was snapped up from Quang Ninh while Ho Tan Tai was lured away from Binh Duong, however the Dark Horses’ biggest coup was the acquisitions of Rimario from Hanoi and Ahn Byung-keon from Sai Gon, two vital players for their respective clubs last season. It’s interesting to see whether Rimario’s goals would take Binh Dinh to the next level for the 2021 season.

Relegation group candidates

As for the teams finishing in the relegation group…I can see both Song Lam Nghe An and Ha Tinh finishing within the upper regions of the relegation group. SLNA are not the same without the influential Tuan Tai, but they still have Ho Sy Sam and Pham Xuan Hung within their books, while Nigerian Peter Samuel leads the line for the men in yellow. Ha Tinh, on the other hand, have gobbled up Quang Ninh trio Dao Nhat Minh, Giang Tran Quach Tan, and Nguyen Xuan Hung, before adding Tran Phi Son from Ho Chi Minh City into their ranks. These two should have enough to survive.

Hai Phong FC are an anomaly. They have a decent squad on paper but on the field they often struggle. The men in red have retained a good bulk of their squad for 2020 and with Jermie Lynch (finally I got his name right after all these years) leading the line up top alongside fellow Jamaican Diego Fagan, they should also survive.

Who will face the drop this year?

This leaves us with two teams – Nam Dinh and Quang Ninh. Unfortunately, there are 1.5 relegation spots this season, with the team finishing 13th playing a relegation play-off against the runners-up of the 2021 V.League 2, while the team finishing last go straight down. Nam Dinh have proven themselves as escape artists in the past few years and I don’t see that trend changing this year, with my prediction for them being 13th with the men from Thien Truong probably pulling off another great escape via the play-off. And yes – this might sound super controversial due to how well they’ve been in recent years – but I’m predicting Quang Ninh to go down.

Quang Ninh’s fall from grace was due to their recent financial crisis that saw many of their key players jumping ship with head coach Thanh Hung resigning as well due to the severity of the club’s financial woes. At one point, they only have 11 available players in their squad for pre-season!

This was down to the sudden withdrawal of Quang Ninh’s main sponsor mid-way through the 2020 season, which forces chairman Pham Thanh Hung to burden the team’s expenses from his own pocket. He even consulted the Quang Ninh People’s Committee for financial help. The committee took their time in thinking about Quang Ninh’s fate, with a possibility of Quang Ninh being completely dissolved on the horizon. Thankfully the committee decided to lend their hand and inject fresh money into Quang Ninh earlier in January, allowing the Hero Miner to do a a mad dash to the transfer market and bring in some new faces.

Quang Ninh still have some good players sticking on board, such as Mac Hong Quan, Pham Nguyen Sa, and Nghiem Xuan Tu, however should these players were presented with greener pastures, there’s a possibility that the trio would jump ship as well. Old boys Nguyen Thanh Hien and Nguyen Hoai Anh returned to the club that they once called home, while another returnee, Brazilian striker Eydison, is set to lead the lines for Hoang Tho’s men. The trio were part of the new faces coming into the Cam Pha Stadium, which also includes SLNA’s Brazilian midfielder Gustavo Santos.

It’s going to be a difficult season for Quang Ninh, but I do sincerely hope they prove my prediction wrong.

Anyway, those are my predictions for the 2021 V.League 1 season. Yeah, my relegation candidate was quite the bombshell and I believe a lot of you won’t agree with my predictions. Feel free to reach us out on Facebook and Twitter if you have your own predictions for the upcoming V.League 1 season!