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 By Kelvin Leong

Le Cong Vinh eyes Neymar record, Siroch for Thailand, Azkals AFF dream

Bocaue and Yangon will come alive this weekend when the AFF Suzuki Cup kicks off with four matches.

For the first time, Myanmar and Philippines are hosting the Southeast Asian championship, with reigning champions Thailand the hot favourites in Group A, despite the presence of fellow four-time winners, Singapore.

Here are five things to look out for when the action begins on Saturday:

1. Azkals need AFF Cup to confirm regional status

The Philippines are not only co-hosts of the showpiece event, but also the top ASEAN team in the FIFA rankings at 124th.

While some believe the rankings aren't an accurate reflection of quality, Thomas Dooley's charges have the perfect opportunity to silence the critics. once and for all.

Blessed with one of the most star-studded teams in the country's history, golden boys like James and Phil Younghusband, Misagh Bahadoran and Mark Hartmann will be eager to prove that they are worthy of the hype. But key injuries in defence could leave them exposed at the back.

The Azkals have come close in the previous three editions, but exited at the semifinal stage. An historic trophy could be the perfect tonic to finally draw Filipino fans to football, in a country where Manny Pacquiao and basketball dominate headlines.

Vietnam striker Le Cong Vinh
Le Cong Vinh has scored 49 goals for Vietnam in 80 appearances.

2. Le Cong Vinh can upstage Wayne Rooney

Not often do Southeast Asian players get mentioned in the same breath as world stars, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. But Vietnam's Le Cong Vinh has put himself on par with them when it comes to his international performances. 

His 49 goals for Vietnam ranks him on the top 10 list of active goalscorers in international football. He needs four more to surpass Rooney (53), with Ali Ashfaq (52), Clint Dempsey (52) and Sunil Chhetri (51) also in his sights.

Should he manage that feat in the AFF Cup this year, he will be sitting proudly behind Ballon d'Or nominees Ronaldo (68), and Argentina's inspirational captain Lionel Messi (56).

Cong Vinh already has legendary status in Vietnamese football after his 2008 heroics to seal the Golden Stars' first-ever AFF Cup title. And, at the age of 30, it could be only a matter of time before he gets to the half century mark, to make the global football world sit up and take notice.

Thailand striker Siroch Chatthong
Dangerous striker Siroch Chatthong provides Thailand with a different dimension in attack.

3. Zico's gamble on Siroch could reap dividends 

Like any other AFF Cup, plenty of the pre-tournament talk revolves around players to watch, with Thailand's 2014 heroes Chanathip Songkrasin and Charyl Chappuis grabbing the headlines.

This event, however, could signal Kiatisuk Senamuang's boldest ever move. His surprise inclusion of Ubon UMT's giant forward Siroch Chatthong in the starting XI against Australia in Tuesday's AFC World Cup qualifier gave Teerasil Dandga a new lease of life.

Siroch brings a whole different dimension to the War Elephants, with his physical presence and willingness to chase lost causes. Teerasil benefited from the 23-year-old's disruptive runs, bagging himself a brace against the Asian champions.

With Thailand likely to be tired from their World Cup qualifying battle, Kiatisuk may just put his faith in the Surin native to do the damage in Bocaue, near Manila. 

And should Siroch torment opposing defences, Thailand could be looking at an unprecedented fifth ASEAN crown to surpass Singapore, and confirm their status as the region's top football nation.

4. Singapore to thrive on underdog status 

V. Sundramoorthy is a man under pressure as he leads Singapore into the 2016 edition on the back of a dismal record, with just two wins in his past seven international matches.

Since taking charge of the Lions after the departure of German tactician Bernd Stange, the former FC Basel forward has moulded the team into a strong defensive unit. But their problem in front of goal will need to be addressed in the Group A opener against the Azkals.

Singapore have a poor record when it comes to friendly results before a big tournament. Just like in 2012, when Radojko Avramovic guided them to a historic fourth AFF title, the boys from the Lion City will have to lift themselves up from the floor.

The air of optimism is waning among the Republic's fans, but with seasoned campaigners like Daniel Bennett, Khairul Amri and Hassan Sunny onboard, it would be unwise indeed to underestimate a Singapore side with many multiple AFF winners in the squad.

5. Datuk Ong must rely on team spirit

Datuk Ong Kim Swee was left cursing his luck when key quartet Safiq Rahim, Aidil Zafuan, S. Kunalan and Amirulhadi Zainal retired abruptly from international football just six months into this first year as coach.

With a makeshift squad looking to veterans like Amri Yahyah, Baddrol Bakhtiar, Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and Safee Sali for inspiration, the 2011 Southeast Asian Games-winning coach must call on his tactical nous if Malaysia are to make it to the semifinals. 

His pre-tournament training camp was focused around team bonding more than tactics, and this could be the best way forward for the Harimau Malaysia.

In English-born striker Darren Lok, Malaysia have a player of unknown quality who will be determined to prove he deserves to don the national jersey. And Selangor centre-back Shahrom Kalam will be keen to provide steel to the defence, especially against the free-scoring Vietnamese in the pivotal second group game on Nov. 23. 

Winning a second AFF title for Malaysia, or helping them reach a second consecutive final, would help Ong stake his claim to be the national boss for the long term.

ESPN FC editor Kelvin Leong is a former media officer for Singapore and ex-regional editor of Twitter: @KelvinLeong29.


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