Nguyễn Quang Hải on the ball against Malaysia on Sunday. Photo courtesy of VFF
What a difference a week and a 3-0 win make.
After an unconvincing opening 2-0 victory against Laos last week, Việt Nam got their AFF Cup defence truly up and running with a 3-0 trouncing of Malaysia on Sunday night.
The rematch of the 2018 final wasn’t even that close really, as Việt Nam surged into a two-goal lead in the opening half and eased off after the break, all while keeping their opponents at arm’s length.
Malaysia partisans may argue their team was hampered by a COVID-19 outbreak in the squad that sidelined several players, but as Việt Nam’s coach Park Hang-seo rightly pointed out pre-match, Malaysia chose not to use the full 30-man squad allocation for the tournament and seemingly paid the price.
The way Việt Nam effortlessly switched playing styles from a high-intensity pressing game in the first period to a more languid approach in the second 45 was the hallmark of a group of players at the top of their game.
It was also a timely reminder of the size of the gap between Asian football and Southeast Asian football.
In their six defeats in the third round of World Cup qualifying, Việt Nam have struggled mightily.
Yes, it was commendable that they held perennial World Cup qualifiers Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia to one nil defeats, but Việt Nam never really troubled the score sheet in any of those matches.
I was certainly guilty of judging them too harshly on the strength of those performances and honestly thought Malaysia would be tricky opponents for a team likely short on confidence.
While the comfortable win should bode well for further success in this tournament, I think it also does go to show just how much Việt Nam have to improve if they ever are to go all the way to the World Cup proper.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, tournaments like the AFF Cup likely won’t help Việt Nam with that ultimate objective, at least not with the team’s star players like Nguyễn Quang Hải, Nguyễn Tuấn Anh and Quế Ngọc Hải all on the pitch.
While racking up victories over the likes of Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia makes for good entertainment and secures regional bragging rights, it can’t be doing much to help prepare Việt Nam to take on a Japan or South Korea.
In an ideal world, Việt Nam’s top players would turn out for club sides overseas and the national team would use them sparingly in these lower-level tournaments.
Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, so maybe for now it’s best to enjoy the ride as coach Park and his men march towards the final of this tournament, which I think they are virtually a shoo-in to win, especially with the knockout stages over two legs.
Maybe next time they’re in AFF Cup action, Việt Nam can use the tournament as a learning experience, just as the AFF Cup has been a learning experience for recency bias-plagued onlookers like me. — VNS