Southeast Asia Asia

An Early Prediction For The 2021 AFF Championship

In a few days, the AFF Championship will start again. The majority of countries have already announced their squads and are preparing themselves in Singapore, the host country.

There are many surprises from the squad lists. Several players who have a difficult time getting permission from their respective teams are called, like Egy Maulana Vikri from Indonesia and Chanatip Songkrasin from Thailand. Their arrival, along with many Southeast Asian heavy hitters like Nguyen Quang Hai from Vietnam and Safawi Rasid from Malaysia, will make this year’s tournament even more interesting.

So, what can we expect from the tournament? Which countries will advance to the semifinals, and which countries will go home early? Here is an early prediction for each group.

Thailand MF Chanathip Songkrasin – Credit: GettyImages

Group A (Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Timor-Leste)

If we talk about Group A, the logical choice for the group’s favorites would be Thailand. The War Elephants are the most successful national team in the tournament with five titles. The last time they won the championship was in 2016 when they beat Indonesia in Thailand 2-0 after they lost in the first leg. This year, they have a good chance to at least advance out of Group A as group winners. They don’t have to face tough opponents like Indonesia, Malaysia, or Vietnam. Instead, they only have to face relatively easy opposition such as Timor Leste and Myanmar. The toughest opponents they have to face are the Philippines and hosts Singapore.

On paper, Thailand should easily get the first position in Group A. However, they have to be careful. They didn’t have a good record this year. From 5 matches they played, they were defeated three times, forced to a draw two times, and never once did they win. The last time they played was in June when they were defeated by Malaysia 0-1 in the World Cup qualifiers. That will probably cause a psychological problem for their players. Thailand’s coach, Alexander Pölking, hopes that the arrival of several overseas-based players will help their teammates with the problem.

On the other hand, Singapore and the Philippines will fight to shock Thailand and bag themselves a ticket for the semifinals. The Philippines will be the favorites to accompany Thailand to the semifinals. They performed very well this year. Even though they could not reach the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, The Azkals managed to end the second round of qualifications in third place behind China and Syria. The combination of experienced players, naturalization players, and young players who have several experiences in Europe will be dangerous for any team in Group A.

As for Singapore, The Lions will likely want to perform their best at their own backyard. Tatsuma Yoshida, the Singapore coach, will depend on BG Pathum United’s Irfan Fandi to stop their opponent’s forward while his two siblings, Ikhsan Fandi and Ilhan Fandi, will play a pivotal role in orchestrating Singapore’s fast counter-attack. This scheme has already been tested in Singapore’s friendly match against Central Asian powerhouses Kyrgystan, which ended in a narrow 2-1 defeat. The Fandi trio will have more motivation to do their best and prove that they are better than their father, legendary Singapore attacker Fandi Ahmad.

But Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore need to be careful. Even though Myanmar and Timor Leste are not at their level, they can still manage to surprise everyone. Many fans, especially from Malaysia, will never forget AFF 2016, when Myanmar won the last match of the group phase against Malaysia and advanced to the semifinals. As for Timor Leste, getting underestimated by everyone will be their advantage. They will try to steal points while their opponents get complacent. If everyone wants to reach the semifinals, they better be careful when they have to face off against Myanmar and Timor Leste.

Malaysia FW Safawi Rasid – Credit: GettyImages

Group B (Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos)

This group will provide the perfect opportunity for Indonesia and Malaysia to exact their revenge on Vietnam. The two, along with the defending AFF Championship winners, were in the same group in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers, where it ended with Vietnam in the first place. Considering Vietnam’s excellent form on that stage of the qualifiers, combined with the fact that they’re the AFF’s defending champions, made the Golden Dragons huge favorites to top Group B. They have a good record against their rivals in this group. Park Hang-seo’s men managed to defeat Malaysia 2-1 and annihilating Indonesia 4-0 in the World Cup qualifiers.

However, their fate in this year’s AFF will depend on how they perform in the first match. After six losses in a row in the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, they need to win their first match to repair their psychological state. Granted, Vietnam had lost against Asian powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Japan, but the AFF will provide them with the best opportunity to bounce back from their awful run of form. Laos, the team they have to face in the first match, is no match compared to the might of Vietnam. But Laos will have the same advantage as Timor Leste. They are considered the weakest team in the AFF this year. If Vietnam is not careful, they will have a hard time stamping their authority again in the tournament.

As for Indonesia and Malaysia, this will be the best moment for them to settle their grudges against Vietnam and each other. Indonesia, who were humiliated by Vietnam last June and beaten by Malaysia twice in 2019, will have more motivation to reach the semifinal. The arrival of two players who were initially barred by their clubs to play in the AFF, Elkan Baggot and Egy Maulana Vikri, will boost Indonesia’s confidence in both offense and defense.

But the most impatient team in waiting for the AFF is probably Malaysia. They will have a chance to get revenge against Vietnam for the losses in the final of the 2018 AFF Championship and in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers. The fact that they also have to face their neighbor, Indonesia, will also give their players more motivation. They will not let the opportunity to humiliate their rivals go away that easily. They will fight with everything they have to win the match against Indonesia and Vietnam and get a spot in the semifinals.

The last team in this group, Cambodia, might have similar conditions to Laos and Timor Leste. They tend to get underestimated by their opponents. But for Keisuke Honda, Cambodia’s coach, it will be a great experience to face many opponents who are better than them. After their last match against Guam in the first round of Asian Cup Qualification, he said that their team needed a better mentality to face better opponents, or they would never reach higher competition in Asia.

Credit: Achmad Zulfikar (Twitter, Medium)