AFF Suzuki Cup 2012: Connect Four

AFF Suzuki Cup Aleksandar Duric

Aleksandar Duric (r)
image: © Thananuwat Srirasant

When Thailand and Singapore to meet on this Wednesday and Saturday, this is not only simply a final. It is more. It is about whom is the real powerhouse in the region, who will be the first to win his fourth title and it will be a last hurray for a great striker and coach.

Up to now both teams have only met on four occasions during the course of a ASEAN Championship. With the last meeting in the final in 2007 it came to two memorable matches. The first leg took place in the old national stadium of  Singapore, in front of, would you believe 55,000 spectators, and resulted in 2-1 win for the hosting side. The memorable of the game: 82 minutes played and Singapore got a penalty kick which definitely wasn't one.

Niweat Siriwong simply felled on his back and his opposing player Alam Shah with him. Apparently both just lost their balance. Afterwards and in protest the Thai players left the field and returned 15 minutes later. Singapore converted from the spot and headed to Bangkok with a victory.

Like this time, the return match in 2007 took place at the Supachalasai Stadium. Hardly possible today, but 32,000 spectators appeared in the small brother of the Rajamangala. His Majesty the King celebrated his 80th birthday in this year and the stadium dived in a sea of thousands of yellow shirts. Thailand took the lead early in second half by a goal from Pipat Tonkanya, he already scored in the first leg, before Khairul Amri equalised shortly before the end of the game. Part of the squad five years ago, Datsakorn Thonglao. The midfielder, today playing for Muang Thong, at that time on his move from BEC Tero to Vietnam, probably did not had his nerves under control when he head-butt Singapore's Khairul Amri.

The final this year could become a special one too. But ahead of this times encounter, reasons lies different with a coach and a player having their last hurray for Singapore. One is Singapore coach Raddy Avramović. Under his aegis Singapore could lift the trophy two times. In 2004 and 2007. Since 2003 he is in office, which makes him the currently longest reigning coach of a national team in the region. This alone deserves a great respect. Already two years ago it was to be said: "Rien va plus" for Raddy. Though both sides, FAS and Raddy, agreed on new terms for two more years. Now it is agreed again that both sides will part ways after the 2012 campaign with the coach running out on contract. Finally? You never know in football and especially not in ASEAN.

The second one who is to leave the stage and will hang up his boots for the national side is Aleksandar Đurić, one of the best striker Singapore has seen in recent decades. With 42 years of age, the Methusalem among the strikers not only domestically, probably only Therdsak Chaiman (both played together in Singapore for the Armed Forces) could cope with him with his 39 years if he still would play for Thailand, is the oldest player of the tournament. Since 2000 the 1.92 meter giant earns his money in the S-League. The number of his goals he scored for his clubs since, can't be numbered and are in to hundreds. His role within the current Singapore squad is not to score goals mainly. Even if he is physically fully fit and is still dangerous he should come off the bench and make the opponent defenders focusing on him creating room for his fellow players. In addition, he should help with his experience on the field. He would like to finish his career, of course, with lifting the cup by the end of this week. These would be his only one title with the national team for which he plays since 2007.

Thailand already arrived on Monday in Singapore, a day earlier than this was the case before the semi-final against Malaysia. Reason for this certainly might be the artificial turf at the Jalan Besar Stadium. Rather than just having one, it gave Thailand the opportunity to have two training sessions on the pitch and to become familiar with.

Winfried Schafer has no injury worries. Datsakorn who was in question with a slide injury should be fully fit for Wednesday and we expect the same starting eleven like we have seen already against Malaysia. However, Panupong, Teerathorn, Datsakorn, Apipoo and Phichitphong are all cautioned and could miss the final on Saturday in case of getting booked this Wednesday. But the German coach don't pay much attention to it and don't worries about with saying that he is having a squad of 22 players each other equal and that he fully trust his second string. Though he denies his side are the favorite: “If you look at the preparation time that we had for the tournament, I think it is surprise that we are here now. We didn’t have any friendly matches, only our training camp to prepare for the tournament and now we are in the first leg of the final."

Singapore started in to the tournament with beating defending champion Malaysia 3-0. After losing to Indonesia, the Lions were back against the wall in the third group stage fixture against Laos. Things didn't look well for them with 40 minutes played and trailing by two goals against the minnows. But eventually Singapore turned things around and won it by 4-3 and hence qualified for the semis. Thailand's opponent of group A, the Philippines were waiting next. After both sides separated in a goal less stalemate, Amri scored the winning goal and opened the door to the final. Though Thailand should be the better team in terms of play, it remains to be seen how the Thais can cope with the robust game manner of Singapore.

As well as Thailand, Singapore hardly has to deal with injury problems with central midfielders Fahruddin Mustafic and Isa Halim passed fit to play. With the current squad, eight players were part of the 2007 winning team. And this is exactly the advantage Avramovic believes in. That experience could be a huge benefit to his side. “Some of our players already have experience of playing in the final so their part is to help the younger players." And as just as his counterpart is doing, the Serb is looking just one game ahead. “In my opinion, both teams are capable of winning any game whether it is at home or away. Right now, we will focus on the first leg and then we will think about the second leg later on. We will try to focus on the first game.“

In the final five years ago it was about whether Thailand would be able to win his fourth title, or whether Singapore would be able to catch up. From 1996 to 2007, either, the Thais or Singapore have won the competition. Only Vietnam (2008) and Malaysia (2010) could broke through this phalanx. Now the old order is restored and one of both sides will get, in any case, his fourth trophy. Connect four.
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