Kuala Lumpur: Vietnam's top flight will become the latest of Asia's leagues to return to action when the V.League 1 resumes on Friday after a near three-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Founded in 1980 in a semi-professional capacity before moving into a profession era at the turn of the Millennium, the V.League has enjoyed a steady rise in recent years, with last season's AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal final between Hanoi FC and Becamex Binh Duong suggesting that some of the strongest club sides in Southeast Asia now hail from Vietnam.
And in further positive news for football fans across Vietnam, matches will not be played behind closed doors, with authorities allowing spectators into stadiums as the country continues to return towards normality.
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While the V.League's first two rounds of fixtures already took place at the start of March, the-AFC.com takes a look at the 14 teams gunning for glory, survival or something in between ahead of the competition's resumption.
Head coach: Chu Dinh Nghiem
2019 result: Champions
Foreign players: Pape Omar Faye (Senegal), Moses Oloya (Uganda), Rimario Gordon (Jamaica)
Player to watch: Nguyen Quang Hai
Hanoi FC have been the dominant side in recent years and the capital city club are aiming for an unprecedented third successive title – and fourth in five years – having won the 2018 and 2019 editions, with last year seeing them claim a league–cup double.
In recent seasons, the Purple-Yellows have also developed into a force in the AFC Cup, reaching the Inter-Zone final in 2019 on the back of some free-scoring performances before an away-goals defeat to DPR Korea's 4.25 SC. They began their 2020 campaign with a win and a loss, while victory over Dong Thap at the weekend secured a place in the last eight of the Vietnamese Cup.
Boasting a number of established internationals including the hugely talented Nguyen Quang Hai and the experienced Nguyen Van Quyet, who are complemented by Senegalese striker Pape Omar Faye and the reliable presence of Ugandan Moses Oloya in the centre of the park, Hanoi will likely be favourites to pick up yet another title.
Ho Chi Minh City FC
Head coach: Chung Hae-seong
2019 result: Runners-up
Foreign players: Alex (Brazil), Amido Balde (Guinea-Bissau), Pape Diakite (Senegal), Seo Yong-duk (Korea Republic)
Player to watch: Nguyen Cong Phuong
Ho Chi Minh City FC could well be Hanoi's most likely challengers after running the eventual champions close last season before finishing second in a two-horse race after they lost their penultimate game of the campaign.
Jung Hae-seong's side strengthened in the off-season, bringing in one of Vietnam's biggest stars in Nguyen Cong Phuong as well as Guinea-Bissau striker Amido Balde, once of Scottish giants Celtic, and they had begun the season like a house on fire as they chase their first title since 2002.
Two wins out of two in the V.League before its postponement was a signal of their early intentions as they set the pace from the off, while they also won two and drew one of of their AFC Cup games with Balde netting three in three and Cong Phuong scoring twice.
Than Quanh Ninh
Head coach: Phan Thanh Hung
2019 result: 3rd
Foreign players: Neven Lastro (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Jeremie Lynch (Jamaica), Andre Fagan (Jamaica)
Player to watch: Nguyen Hai Huy
Regular top-half finishers, Than Quang Ninh enjoyed one of their strongest league campaigns ever in 2019, finishing in third place to qualify for the AFC Cup, and they have not finished outside the top six since gaining promotion from the second tier in 2013.
One of the oldest clubs in Vietnam, having been established in 1956, the side from the northwest of the country will again be expected to challenge towards the upper reaches of the V.League, and victory over Hanoi in their second game was an indication they could be a force to be reckoned with.
Long-serving creative midfielder Nguyen Hai Huy has spent his entire career at Than Quang Ninh and is among their most consistent performers, while the club will hope the acquisition of Jamaican striker Jeremie Lynch from Hai Phong can fill the void left by the departure of Russian Rod Dyachenko.
Becamex Binh Duong
Head coach: Nguyen Thanh Son
2019 result: 4th
Foreign players: Hedipo Gustavo (Brazil), Ali Rabo (Burkina Faso), Youssouf Toure (France)
Player to watch: Nguyen Tien Linh
One of the heavyweights of Vietnamese football, four-time domestic champions Becamex Binh Duong have also appeared in three editions of the AFC Champions League group stage in 2008, 2015 and 2016 where they have claimed some memorable scalps including that of eventual winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of Korea Republic.
Last season, the Binh Duong club finished three points behind third-placed Than Quang Ninh in the race for Continental competition qualification but it did, nonetheless, represent their best league finish since they last won the title in 2015.
The forward line of Binh Duong is where most of the star power lies as they boast national team stars past and present in Nguyen Anh Duc and Nguyen Tien Linh. The 2020 season's opening rounds were a mixed success for the team from Thu Dau Mot with a 1-0 win over Da Nang followed by a reversal by the same scoreline to Song Lam Nghe An.
Head coach: Vu Tien Thanh
2019 result: 5th
Foreign players: Geovane (Brazil), Pedro Paulo (Brazil), Ahn Byung-keon (Korea Republic)
Player to watch: Pedro Paulo
Since achieving promotion in 2015, Saigon FC have been just below the top sides who have been challenging for the title with two fifth-place finishes in the last three years.
Among the younger sides in the division, having only been formed in 2011, Saigon were helmed by Hoang Van Phuc at the onset of the season but after the former Quang Nam boss stepped down following the first game, Vu Tien Thanh moved into the hot seat.
The early season form began well in March with a goalless draw with Song Lam Nghe followed by a comprehensive 4-1 win over Da Nang that saw Brazilian marksman Pedro Paul net a brace. However, the recent 2-1 cup defeat to second-tier side Ba Ria Vung Tau would have been a disappointing result for a team with eyes on silverware this year.
Head coach: Truong Viet Hoang
2019 result: 6th
Foreign players: Bruno Cantanhede (Brazil), Caique (Brazil), Luizao (Brazil)
Player to watch: Que Ngoc Hai
One of the newer clubs in the V.league, Viettel have most often found themselves chasing promotion to the top flight or avoiding relegation to the second tier since being founded in 2007.
However, the current side are one that ooze quality with several national team players in their ranks including Vietnam captain Que Ngoc Hai, fellow defender Bui Tien Dung and midfielder Nguyen Trong Hoang.
Viettel sit fourth in the early stages of the league after a 1-0 win over Hong Linh Ha Tinh and a rollercoaster 3-3 draw with Hoang Ang Gia Lai back in March and, after coming sixth last season, they will have high hopes for an even better campaign this time round.
Song Lam Nghe An
Head coach: Ngo Quang Truong
2019 result: 7th
Foreign players: Gustavo (Brazil), Alagie Sosseh (Gambia), Peter Onyekachi (Nigeria)
Player to watch: Phan Van Duc
A proud history of domestic and Continental success, Song Lam Nghe An have been crowned Vietam's champions on three occasions, although their latest league title was back in 2011.
The Golden Lotus have since bounced between the upper and lower mid-table positions with success in the Vietnamese Cup in 2017 restoring some silverware to the trophy cabinet. The 2020 season began positively with a goalless draw at Saigon followed by a 1-0 win over Becamex Binh Duong, although they recently exited the Vietnamese Cup at the hands of second-tier giant killers Ba Ria Vung Tau.
Exciting midfielder Phan Van Duc has enjoyed phenomenal success with the national team, particularly in 2018 when he was part of the side to win the AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup and finish as runners-up in the AFC U23 Championship, and he has already been on the scoresheet for Song Lam Nghe An in the 2020 season in the win over Binh Duong.
Hoang Anh Gia Lai
Head coach: Lee Tae-hoon
2019 result: 8th
Foreign players: Chevaughn Wlash (Jamaica), Kester Oahimijie (Nigeria), Damir Memovic (Serbia)
Player to watch: Luong Xuan Truong
Back-to-back V.League winners in the early years of the Millennium, Hoang Anh Gia Lai have generally finished in the mid to lower reaches of the table in recent seasons, with their eighth-placed finish in 2019 their best since 2013.
Noted for bringing through some of Vietnam's brightest young talents, with the HAGL Academy having links to English Premier League giants Arsenal, the club was where Nguyen Cong Phuong first learnt his trade.
It is also home to Luong Xuan Truong, the midfielder once touted among Vietnam's most promising players who returned from a loan spell at Thailand's Buriram United earlier in they year. Having begun the season with a win and a draw, Hoang Anh Gia Lai will be aiming to build on a promising 2019 campaign.
Head coach: Vu Hong Viet
2019 result: 9th
Foreign players: Lucas Rocha (Brazil), Rodrigo Dias (Brazil), Ze Paulo (Brazil)
Player to watch: Dinh Thanh Trung
Champions of Vietnam as recently as 2017, the club from Tam Ky city have struggled to emulate anything like that kind of success either before or since with a series of lower mid-table finishes after achieving promotion from the second tier in 2013.
A key component of the victorious 2017 side was midfielder Dinh Than Trung, and the former Vietnamese Golden Ball winner remains the star and captain of Vu Hong Viet's side.
However, early results from the 2020 campaign also suggest that this year could, again, be one of struggle rather than success as a 3-1 defeat to Ho Chi Minh City and a 1-1 draw with Hai Phong see them in the familiar lower reaches of the league. The recent exit in the cup to Hong Linh An Tinh would have done nothing to alleviate early season disappointment.
SHB Da Nang
Head coach: Le Huynh Duc
2019 result: 10th
Foreign players: Igor Jelic (Croatia), Grace Tanda (Sweden), Ismahil Akinade (Nigeria)
Player to watch: Ha Duc Chinh
It's been almost a decade since Da Nang were last crowned V.League champions and last season's 10th-placed finish was their poorest return since 2003, so the central Vietnam side will be looking for improvement this time round, although successive defeats prior to the COVID-19 related postponement was not the ideal start and they currently prop up the standings.
Da Nang's biggest task could well be to fill the void left by Do Merlo, the Argentine-born naturalised Vietnamese who top scored once more last season and was prolific over almost 10 years and two spells with the club.
That weight of responsibility could fall upon the shoulders of Ha Duc Chinh, the 22-year-old who was among many young talents who shone in Vietnam's AFC U23 Championship China 2018 runners-up finish and was also named in the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 squad the following year, while Igor Jelic's arrival from Uzbek side Lokomotiv also generates excitement. .
Duoc Nam Ha Nam Dinh
Head coach: Nguyen Van Dung
2019 result: 11th
Foreign players: Rafaelson (Brazil), Valentin Zoungrana (Burkina Faso), Emmanuel Agbaji (Nigeria)
Player to watch: Do Merlo
After spending six seasons in the second tier, Nam Dinh gained promotion in 2017 and followed up a 13th-placed finish in 2018 by finishing 11th last year. Steady progress that they will hope to continue this time round.
The acquisition of Do Merlo from Da Nang could prove somewhat of a coup, with the striker having scored well over 130 goals since moving to Vietnam in 2009. He currently sits second in the V.League's all-time scoring charts behind Hoang Vu Samson.
Two goals in two games as Nam Dinh won one and lost one at the start of the campaign offers proof that age is no barrier for the 35-year-old, who will likely be partnered by Rafaelson after the Brazilian arrived from Denmark at the beginning of 2020.
Head coach: Pham Anh Tuan
2019 result: 12th
Foreign players: Claudecir Junior (Brazil), Diego (Brazil), Joseph Mpande (Uganda)
Player to watch: Joseph Mpande
The oldest club in V.League 1, Hai Phong were founded back in 1952 although they have yet to be crowned champions of Vietnam, with their biggest successes coming when lifting the Vietnamese Cup in 1995 and 2014.
Hai Phong did, however, come agonisingly close to that elusive first league title in 2016 when they lost out to Hanoi FC by virtue of goal difference alone. But since then they have slid down the table, with last season's 12th-placed finish their lowest since 2012.
A win and a draw to kick off the 2020 season was a positive start, although dropping out of the Vietnamese Cup to second-tier Dong Thap in late May could well prove a wake-up call. After the departure of last season's top scorer Jeremie Lynch all eyes will be on Ugandan international Joseph Mpande, who registered in each of the first two games.
Head coach: Fabio Lopez
2019 result: 13th
Foreign players: Louis Ewonde (Cameroon), Josip Balic (Croatia), Philippe Nsiah (France)
Player to watch: Hoang Vu Samson
After back-to-back runners-up finishes in 2017 and 2018, the 2019 V.League 1 campaign was a huge disappointment for the northern Vietnamese club. Indeed, only a narrow 1-0 win over Pho Hien in the relegation play-off in October last year saw them retain their place in the top flight.
Their 2019 form saw a period of managerial upheaval with Nguyen Duc Thang leaving via mutual consent last July before his replacement Vu Quang Bao resigned a month later. Mai Xuan Hop, the interim replacement, took charge until Italian Fabio Lopez took the helm at the end of November and the man who has the likes of Fiorentina, Bangladesh, Al Ahli Saudi and Borneo FC on his resume will be charged with returning Thanh Hoa to their previous heights.
Back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Hai Phong and Ho Chi Minh City was not an ideal start to life under Lopez before the enforced COVID-19 break, while they were also eliminated from the Vietnamese Cup last weekend after a 1-0 loss against Becamex Binh Duong.
Hong Linh Ha Tinh
Head coach: Phạm Minh Duc
2019 result: Promoted (V. League 2 – Champions)
Foreign players: Bruno Henrique (Brazil), Janclesio (Brazil), Victor Mansaray (United States)
Player to watch: Le Tan Tai
The youngest club in the 2020 V.League season, Hong Linh Ha Tinh were founded just five years ago. Nevertheless, the side from the northern province of central Vietnam surged swiftly through the football league system and, after finishing second in 2018, achieved promotion last year by winning the V. League 2.
Coached by former Vietnam international Pham Minh Duc, the newcomers also have some well-known names among their youthful ranks with former national team skipper Le Tan Tai the marquee along with American striker Victor Mansaray who had spells in 2019 with Becamex Binh Duong and Ho Chi Minh City.
Life in V.League 1 has proved a step up, with two defeats in their opening fixtures back in March, but last weekend they defeated Quang Nam to progress to quarter-finals of the cup having picked up their maiden win of the season in the first round win over Tay Ninh a few days earlier.
V. League 1
June 5: Hai Phong vs Ho Chi Minh City, Duoc Nam Ha Nam Dinh vs Viettel, Saigon FC vs Becamex Binh Duong
June 6: Song Lam Nghe An vs SHB Da Nang, Quang Nam vs Thanh Hoa, Thang Quang Ninh vs Hong Ling Ha Tinh, Hanoi FC vs Hoang Anh Gia Lai
Photos: Ho Chi Minh City FC, Becamex Binh Duong, Hong Linh Ha Tinh, Viettel FC, Hoang Anh Gia Lai, Duoc Nam Ha Nam Dinh, Hai Phong
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