Kuala Lumpur: The teams may be competing for a place on the world stage, but there is a distinctly Southeast Asian flavour to Thursday’s opening day of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Asian Qualifiers Group F.
Both of the group’s opening fixtures are hotly anticipated ASEAN derbies, with Thailand hosting Vietnam in Pathum Thani, and Malaysia travelling to Jakarta to face neighbours Indonesia.
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THAILAND vs VIETNAM
When the draw for Round 2 of the Asian Qualifiers was conducted in July, it was Group G that had everybody talking.
Four ASEAN teams – Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – were all drawn together, alongside United Arab Emirates, creating a raft of high-stakes regional derbies to be played out over the next nine months.
The first of those derbies will see Thailand – a regional power who reached the Final Round of Asian Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 – face Vietnam; a rising football power whose achievements under Korean head coach Park Hang-seo include an AFC Asian Cup quarter-final, the most recent AFF Cup and a runners-up finish at the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship.
But while Vietnam are on an upward curve, which has included the likes of Nguyen Cong Phuong and, this week, Doan Van Hau securing ground-breaking deals with European clubs, the Asian Qualifiers ahead present the opportunity to convert their impressive rise into a quantum leap on the Continental stage.
Thailand also reached the AFC Asian Cup knockout stage, losing to UAE in the Round of 16, and have since appointed a new head coach, experienced Japanese mentor Akira Nishino, who took the reins in July.
One issue Nishino will need to deal with, both in Thursday’s clash and in Thailand’s second Group F fixture against Indonesia next Tuesday, is the absence of Teerasil Danga and Adisak Kraisorn, leaving Supachai Chaided as the only recognised striker in a squad where almost half the players have less than 10 international caps.
Adding further intrigue to Thursday’s tie is the recent meeting between the sides at the King’s Cup in Buriram, with a stoppage time goal from Nguyen Anh Duc securing a 1-0 win for Vietnam in the last match before Nishino’s appointment.
Also of interest will be battle between two of the region’s most exciting players, with Thailand’s Consadole Sapporo star Chanathip Songkrasin (pictured above, right) going head to head with Nguyen Quang Hai (pictured above, left), the promising Vietnamese midfielder who has built on a superb 2018 AFC U23 Championship campaign to play a key role in Hanoi FC’s charge to this year’s AFC Cup Inter-Zone Final.
THAILAND vs VIETNAM
Venue: Thammasat Stadium, Pathum Thani
Kick-off: 1900 hours (UTC +7)
INDONESIA v MALAYSIA
Indonesia and Malaysia have met more than 70 times at the senior international level, but only once has one of the Continent’s biggest rivalries carried the extra weight of a FIFA World Cup Qualifier.
That clash, a 0-0 draw back in 1977, was held in neutral Singapore, making Thursday’s clash at Jakarta’s sprawling Gelora Bung Karno something special in the history of the Indonesia-Malaysia rivalry.
Bragging rights aide, both teams have ample motivation for the tie. Indonesia are appearing in their first FIFA World Cup Qualifier since 2012, with their last fixture, a 10-0 defeat in Bahrain, standing alone as their worst ever loss in the competition.
Current head coach Simon McMenemy will be hoping results of that nature are a thing of the distant past for his side, who put six goals past Vanuatu in their most recent outing in June.
Malaysia also have plenty to prove. Well off the pace during this stage of the Russia 2018 Qualifiers, Harimau Malaya have made great strides under Tan Cheng Hoe since his appointment two years ago, reaching the AFF Cup Final in 2018 and stringing together four successive international wins before last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat against Jordan.
Two of those successes came against Timor-Leste in the Asian Qualifiers Round 1, where Muhammad Shahrel Fikri (pictured below) raced to an early lead in the scoring charts with four goals in a 12-2 aggregate win.
Improving results, combined with the emergence of talented youngsters like Johor Darul Ta’zim pair Safawi Rasid and Akhyar Rashid have generated a sense of hope around the Malaysian side, but, with a full house expected at one of the Continent’s most famous arenas, they are sure to have their work cut out in Jakarta.
It is a venue where Malaysia have rarely tasted success – with the 2010 AFF Cup Final first leg the striking exception – and, with the chance to qualify for major tournaments on the line, the stakes in one of Asia’s most electric rivalries have seldom been higher.
INDONESIA vs MALAYSIA
Venue: Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Jakarta
Kick-off: 1930 hours (UTC +7)
Photos: AFC, AFP
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