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Semi-finals set to be sizzlers

Kuala Lumpur: There will be a very pronounced AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 flavour to the 2018 AFF Cup semi-finals with three of the four teams gearing up for the

Continental showpiece on January 5-February 1.

Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines - ASEAN's three representatives at UAE 2019 - advanced without much fuss to the semi-finals with the Sven-Goran Erikkson-led Azkals impressing by holding Indonesia 0-0 at the imposing Gelora Bung Karno in their final Group B tie to seal a last four berth.

Malaysia missed out on qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 and Tan Cheng Hoe's side will be aiming for regional glory to make up for missing on the Continental extravaganza.

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Semi-finals, 1st Leg December 1 Malaysia v Thailand National Stadium, Bukit Jalil Kick-off: 20:45 (Local Time)

On paper, five-time champions Thailand are the favourites as they were - despite playing with a squad missing their foreign-based players - impressive in Group B, winning three and drawing one of their four matches to finish top.

Head coach Milovan Rajevac has used the 2018 AFF Cup to expose players but he won't take any risks for Saturday's first leg against Malaysia at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil.

Harimau Malaya will be backed by 80,000 fans, with tickets having been sold out on Thursday, and Malaysia can be expected to produce their best.

The fans willed Tan Cheng Hoe's players into producing their best in their final Group A match against Myanmar, with Malaysia cruising to a 3-0 win to finish second behind Vietnam.

The win over Myanmar, given the pressure Malaysia were under, was impressive and showed that the 2008 champions enjoy playing at home, having beaten Laos 3-1 in the other group tie they played in Kuala Lumpur.

Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and Mohd Zaquan Adha Abdul Radzak have led from the front for Malaysia, hitting four and three goals respectively and they will be the players Thailand have to be wary about.

"We mustn't be scared to attack but at the same time, we have to be wary of our defence. Our transition from defence to goal and vice-versa is where we have to be extra careful as when we attack, we always (seem to) concede a goal," said Cheng Hoe.

The War Elephants will, if that happens, inflict damage as they have a lethal finisher in Adisak Kraisorn, who scored eight goals in the group stage with six of them coming in the opening match against Timor-Leste as Thailand scored a 7-0 win.

Adisak, however, isn't the only Thai player Malaysia must be wary about as Rajevac's team are a well rounded outfit and will punish any sign of weakness, even with 80,000 fans against them.

“It is not a concern at all because professional players have to be able to put in a good performance whether they are playing in front of 100,000 people or just a few hundred people,” said Rajevac. “We are playing two matches and if we prepare well and perform as we plan, everything should be fine for us.”

December 2 Philippines v Vietnam Panaad Stadium, Bacolod Kick-off: 19:30 (Local Time)

The Philippines, seeking their first appearance in the AFF Cup final, will not be daunted by the challenge Vietnam - the region's highest ranked team - pose in the semi-finals.

The Azkals will be appearing in their fourth AFF Cup semi-final, although they missed out in 2016, confirming their position as one of the region's top teams.

The fact that they qualified for their first AFC Asian Cup Finals reinforces further how far Philippines have come and Sven-Goran Erikkson's side will be aiming to end Vietnam's campaign.

It will be tough as Vietnam, also preparing for the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, selected their best squad for the 2018 AFF Cup as they look to lift the title for just the second time.

Both teams advanced from the semi-finals undefeated, with Vietnam showing their might as their victories included a 2-0 triumph over Malaysia to end the group stage with 10 points.

Philippines finished on eight points, after playing to draws with Thailand and Indonesia, leading Eriksson to praise his team's "big heart."

“I like our team, I like it very much, we have a lot of good football players and we are playing with a big heart. I’m proud of the team," said Erikkson, who took charge just weeks before the 2018 AFF Cup kicked off.

Philippines will need their big heart as Vietnam are looking to end an already successful 2018 on a high.

The U-23 team impressed in the AFC U23 Championship in China by finishing second and narrowly missed out on a medal at the 2018 Asian Games Indonesia.

Park Hang-seo has been credited with the improvement Vietnam have shown but the head coach wants the title to repay the support he has received from the Vietnam fans and the Philippines can expect the Golden Stars to come at them with all their might.

Photos: AFP

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