Việt Nam coach Park Hang-seo answering questions in the pre-match press conference on May 21. — VNA/VNS Photo Phạm Kiên
HÀ NỘI — The Việt Nam – Thailand football rivalry will have a new chapter as they face off in the SEA Games men's football final on May 22 in the Mỹ Đình National Stadium in Hà Nội.
In the under-23s level, Việt Nam is on a five-game undefeated streak against Thailand, with the War Elephants' last victory occurring in 2015. Last time the teams met, Việt Nam won 1-0 through a Trần Bảo Toàn header.
Both teams went through gruelling semi-finals that included extra time, with Thailand winning against Indonesia through Weerathep Pomphan's goal and Việt Nam needing a towering header from Nguyễn Tiến Linh in the 111th minute to see off Malaysia.
Việt Nam are without Lê Văn Xuân, who went down with a knee injury in the semi-final, which leaves coach Park Hang-seo with a headache selecting a replacement.
Thailand, on the other hand, have their strongest eleven, and the absence of substitute William Weidersjoe due to a red card last match should not be pivotal to Mano Polking's tactics.
The Brazillian, however, still perceives Thailand as the underdogs, just like in the semi-final against Indonesia.
"Việt Nam has a lot of advantages on their hand, with 40,000 fans on their side," said Polking. "Thailand is the underdog, but we are a hard-to-deal-with underdog since my players and me are determined to win this."
"There is no difference whatsoever about the fitness level of both teams since our opponents went through 120 minutes of play also."
After the semi-final against Indonesia, Polking and his players suffered online abuse from Indonesian fans. Speaking of this, Polking said: "Conflicts are part of big matches like this. But the players on the field respect each other, and we should not be worrying about stuff like that. Our number one focus is Việt Nam, not social media."
Thailand's journey in the SEA Games 31 football started roughly with a 2-1 loss to Malaysia. Polking's men later rebounded with four consecutive wins on the way to the final, scoring 12 goals.
Việt Nam had contrasting fortunes. Park Hang-seo's men opened the SEA Games 31 with a defining 3-0 win against Indonesia before struggling with low-block defensive teams such as the Philippines, Myanmar and Timor-Leste, with whom they drew 0-0 and won 1-0 and 2-0, respectively.
The Golden Star Warriors' attack, spearheaded by World Cup qualifiers hero Nguyễn Tiến Linh, struggled to find Malaysia's net in 90 minutes, despite dominating the match.
"We are one match away from the gold medal," said Park. "This pressures the players very much. But that's a challenge they have to overcome. Thailand is perfect, with great players playing in the backbone of their system. Việt Nam need to concentrate on defence to overcome that."
This is Việt Nam's and Thailand's fifth meeting in the final of the SEA Games, but the first in 18 years. Thailand won all four of the previous finals.
"I was not Việt Nam's coach then, and my players now are not the players of those squads. If you want to talk about the past, let me remind you that we won the last SEA Games," said the South Korean.
"Last time in the Philippines, I felt an intense amount of pressure to win the gold medal. This time at home, we have many advantages, but with that comes pressure too."
"Polking is a great coach," Park said of his colleague.
"He has experience coaching in Thailand and has coached Hồ Chí Minh City FC in the V-League. He knows what his team is made of, and he has information about Vietnamese players.
"We played against each other in the AFF Cup earlier, so I think Polking will try to play like last time, and I am prepared for that." — VNS