Southeast Asia Vietnam

Phu Nguyen Stuns the Defending Champions

Defending V.League 1 champions Viettel FC started their 2021 campaign on the wrong foot as they were beaten 1-0 by Hai Phong FC at the Hang Day Stadium on Saturday’s Round 1 action. Nguyen Phu Nguyen’s first half goal turned out to be a decisive one as Hai Phong managed to silence the Viettel faithful in Hanoi, returning back home with all three points in the bag.

Still without the likes of captain Bui Tien Dung and Que Ngoc Hai in the heart of their defense, a depleted Viettel side took the Hang Day pitch on Saturday to take on fellow Northern Vietnam side Hai Phong as they seek to start their title defense in the best way possible. However, what unfolds in the first half of the encounter turned out to be a horror show for Truong Viet Hoang’s Red Tornado as Hai Phong could’ve easily took a 4-0 lead in the first 45 minutes had it not for the excellent performances of stand-in captain Tran Nguyen Manh in between the Viettel sticks.

Jamaican striker Jermie Lynch provided Viettel with a taste of what’s to come with a powerful shot in the 3rd minute, however the ball went straight towards Nguyen Manh. Lynch was allowed so much space within the Viettel defense after the men in red had failed to keep fellow Jamaican Diego Fagan in check, allowing Fagan to feed the ball towards Lynch. Viettel’s Brazilian defender Luizao tried his best in intercepting the incoming ball however Lynch easily outmuscled him, allowing the Jamaican to test Nguyen Manh with his shot.

Hai Phong’s next chance turned out to be the chance that gave them the lead. In the 16th minute, a throw-in towards the midfield was well-received by Fagan, who left Luizao eating his dust. Running towards the Viettel penalty box from the right flank, Fagan had all the freedom in the world to launch a shot towards Nguyen Manh. The goalkeeper managed to get a hand on the ball and deflect it away, however it fell onto the path of Phu Nguyen, who stabbed home the rebound with little effort to give Hai Phong the lead.

The goal showcased how exposed Viettel’s defense was without the presence of both Tien Dung and Ngoc Hai and it became more apparent again as the first half continues. Lynch once again threatened the Red Tornado’s backline in the 30th minute, sending a low drive that rattled the goalpost after being provided the ball by an excellent teamwork between Fagan and Nguyen Huu Khoi.

Viettel did attempt to drew the game level a couple of times in the first half, first through a powerful shot from Duong Van Hao that was easily collected by Hai Phong goalkeeper Nguyen Van Toan, before new signing Pedro Paulo squandered a chance to equalize from a Nguyen Hoang Duc corner. However, Hai Phong kept their foot on the gas and Nguyen Manh had to work hard to neutralize both Fagan and Huu Khoi at the end of the first half to keep the scoreline manageable for the home side.

Viettel came out of the changing room as a much more improved side, however they were unable to make their chances count. Brazilian striker Caique Lemes managed to waste two chances in bringing his side level during the second half, one at the beginning of the second stanza and another in the 76th minute, the latter of which saw Pedro managing to pull off an excellent pass for his fellow Brazilian, only for Caique to fire his shot too weakly, enabling Van Toan to easily collect the ball with his gloves.

In the end, there was no denying Hai Phong as last season’s strugglers managed to vanquish the defending champions with a slender and hard-fought 1-0 victory.

Unlike Lynch and Fagan, who had worked together for some time at both Hai Phong and Than Quang Ninh, both Caique and Pedro still need some more time to gel together nicely, while the presence of Viettel’s star quartet – Tien Dung, Ngoc Hai, Vu Minh Tuan, and Ho Khac Ngoc – was sorely missed. Ngoc Hai was out injured while Tien Dung had just gotten married and is unavailable for some time. Both Minh Tuan and Khac Ngoc made it to the bench for the Hai Phong encounter, however only Minh Tuan saw some action as a substitute.

Viet Hoang even told the press in a post-match press conference that the absence of both Tien Dung and Ngoc Hai meant that there’s a lack of leadership within his side for the past two matches – the Vietnamese Super Cup defeat at the hands of city rivals Hanoi FC and Saturday’s home defeat to Hai Phong. However, Viet Hoang did allude that Tien Dung could make his return for Round 2 of the 2021 V.League 1 season on January 24th, an away trip to Dong A Thanh Hoa.

Speaking about Dong A Thanh Hoa, Ljupko Petrovic’s side had a less-than-ideal start to the 2021 V.League 1 season as well, with the men in yellow going down 1-0 away at Becamex Binh Duong. In a twist of ironic coincidence, the match-deciding goal of that game was scored by To Van Vu, who was born in Thanh Hoa Province but has yet to represent his birthplace’s football club. A disappointed Petrovic remarked that the current Thanh Hoa side only has five players that he deemed good enough to start for the first team, with the Serbian speaking to VNExpress that he needs more players to reinforce his squad.

Saturday’s Round 1 action also saw Rimario Gordon scoring a debut goal for Topenland Binh Dinh, with the newly promoted side starting life in the top flight for the first time in 12 years with a 1-1 draw at 10-man Song Lam Nghe An.

Round 1 concludes on Sunday with three more matches, as SHB Da Nang welcome Ho Chi Minh City FC to the Hoa Xuan Stadium, Hong Linh Ha Tinh host Quang Ninh at the Ha Tinh Stadium, and Sai Gon FC locking horns with Hoang Anh Gia Lai at the Thong Nhat Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City.