Lions are a strong team, says Vietnam coach
Vietnam coach impressed with Lions' quick transition from defence to attack
It has been almost 18 years since Singapore last pulled off a win against Vietnam, in the 1998 Tiger Cup final which the Lions won 1-0, a statistic that surprised even Vietnam coach Nguyen Huu Thang.
Since then, the Republic have gone on to add three more Asean titles (2005, 2007 and 2012) to Vietnam's sole victory in 2008, but have also failed to beat the Golden Stars in their last 11 encounters.
Asked why Vietnam have been almost unbeatable against the Lions, Nguyen (above), a former Vietnam defender who hung up his boots in 2002, said: "Apart from our strong team spirit, I think we were also a little lucky.
"Singapore have always been a very balanced team with equal quality across all positions, and I rate them as a strong team.
"They may not have beaten us recently, but they have always given us a tough fight and the difference has never been more than a goal."
When it was pointed out that his team's flowing football matches his stylish dress sense, Nguyen's stern face broke into a smile.
When The New Paper caught up with him at Hotel Yangon yesterday, he looked sharp in a neatly pressed white shirt tucked into fitting black pants held up by a Hermes belt. Then he checked the time on his Rolex watch before meeting the Vietnam ambassador.
The 44-year-old may accept compliments about his appearance, but he was more demanding about the Golden Stars' performance on the pitch.
Despite beating Hong Kong 4-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw on Friday to make it to tonight's AYA Bank Cup final against Singapore, Nguyen disagreed with public sentiment that his side had played well.
"The humid weather affected our style of play and it wasn't really what I wanted," he said.
"We need to be more compact, especially in defence.
"People may think we are quick, but I felt Singapore moved better and faster in their transition from defence to attack."
Regardless of his strict requirements, the superior technical abilities of his players are evident as they had also beaten Syria 2-0 on May 31.
In the 23-man squad, Luong Cuan Truong is the first Vietnamese to play in the K-League with Incheon United, while his central midfield partner Nguyen Tuan Anh and forward Nguyen Cong Phuong are with J2 League sides Yokohama FC and Mito Hollyhock respectively.
The trio are all 21, the same age as Anumanthan Mohan Kumar, the youngest player in the Singapore squad.
Nguyen said: "It is good for Vietnam football to have our players in strong overseas leagues and I hope to see more playing abroad because they will improve from being in a football environment of a higher standard, and pick up a lot of experience and confidence.
"The tricky thing is if they go there and sit on the bench for a long time, it affects their match fitness and performance for the national team.
"So I hope that with time, they can settle down, get used to the foreign culture, adapt to their style of play and get more playing time."
And don't let their day-off to visit the Shwedagon Palace on Saturday fool you, as Nguyen has no doubts his team will put their best foot forward tonight, especially with a place in the Suzuki Cup at stake.
He said: "The Suzuki Cup is the most important competition in this region and our biggest target for the rest of this year.
"I felt the day-off was necessary for us after the wins against Syria and Hong Kong, to release the players and let them relax so that they can continue to stay hungry and win matches.
"I'm looking at a long list of 35 players for the Suzuki Cup, and there are still many good players in the V-League, so I don't think any player can afford to be complacent.
"We will work towards a collective style of football, try to keep our good run going against Singapore and win the Cup."
- DAVID LEE