Sài Gòn train to prepare for the match with Viettel in the V.League 1 today. — Photo Sài Gòn FC
Before the V.League 1 2020 season started, fans and pundits alike thought the title race would be between Hà Nội FC and HCM City.
However, with the season almost halfway through, surprise package Sài Gòn FC are top of the table and still unbeaten.
The southern side have six wins and five draws, putting them on 23 points and four clear of Viettel and Quảng Ninh Coal in second and third.
Meanwhile preseason favourites Hà Nội FC are fourth on 18 points, with HCM City a point and position behind them.
Though Sài Gòn FC lead the table, many have asked if they have the firepower to finish the job and lift the title.
While they may be five points behind, many expect Hà Nội FC to make a charge to defend the title they have lifted the last two seasons.
Last season, HCM City FC's title challenge faded late on, but things may be different with their neighbours this year thanks to the shortened season.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic-shorted season, after 13 matches, the league will be split into the top eight teams to vie for the title and the bottom six to avoid relegation. This makes the maximum number of matches the winning team has to play only 20, instead of 26 games as in previous seasons.
With nine games left and the lead only four points anything can happen, but perhaps the biggest advantage Sài Gòn have at the moment is consistency.
Coach Vũ Tiến Thành seen in training to prepare for the match with Viettel in V.League 1 today. — Photo Sài Gòn FC
Hà Nội have faced an injury crisis this season, with top players including Đỗ Duy Mạnh, Trần Đình Trọng, Pape Omar and Ngân Văn Đại all spending time on the treatment table. Consequently, Hà Nội’s attackers have struggled to break down packed opposing defences.
Before beating Hải Phòng on July 17 and HCM City on July 24 in their last two games before play was suspended, the capital side suffered three games without a win.
Meanwhile, HCM City FC have blown hot and cold and could beat any time, but also lose to any team.
Of course, to take the title, Sài Gòn must maintain their strong form, but it seems the odds are stacked in their favour.
Progress after each match
According to coach and chairman of Sài Gòn Vũ Tiến Thành, his players have improved after every match.
“I am very surprised that Sài Gòn made great progress quickly. We have improved after each match. Especially after recently matches with Quảng Nam, Thanh Hóa and Nam Định, the team showed me and everyone that the ability of Sài Gòn players is not inferior to any team in the V.League 1. It was a very interesting surprise that I personally want to continue to explore more even though I spent months reviewing the matches of the team in the previous seasons,” said Thành.
Thành said the difference for Sài Gòn now would be their attitude to the game, and he had changed the training methods and used technology for players to preview the training session and express their opinions with the coaching staff.
“I also asked the team to suggest a method to counter the opponent before the training staff makes the final decision, making the training more interesting,” said Thành.
Coach Philippe Troussier of the national U19 team introduced Sài Gòn to a physiotherapist, Japanese Shouichi Masuda, who used to work with the U19 team. Masuda is considered one of the keys to the team's improvement.
Other measures such as acupuncture and sauna also help the southern team stay physically sharp.
Bringing fun for fans
According to Thành, Sài Gòn caught their opponents off guard earlier in the season but now, the surprise factor is gone.
“Sài Gòn just dare to try to be in the top five, then try to reach as high as possible with the mindset of 'playing and enjoying' to bring joy to the audience,” said Thành.
Thành said his team wants to win the right way.
“I also minimise any offensive actions on the field like wasting time or arguing with referee. Fair football will attract fans to the stadium but also be effective by winning for fans to have pride,” said Thành.
According to former coach and current pundit Đoàn Minh Xương, if Sài Gòn FC maintain their form, they will take the title this year.
“Sài Gòn's play style is not overwhelming, but flexible. They know how to adapt to different kinds of matches to set up a very good and careful game plan. The more Sài Gòn play, the braver and more effective they are. They create a different and attractive feature for the league,” said Xương.
Sài Gòn team are ready for the V.League 1’s resumption. — Photo Sài Gòn FC
Defender and captain Nguyễn Quốc Long is sure Sài Gòn are ready for the tournament’s resumption and are focused.
"We have the best status and fitness. We are ready for the upcoming matches," said Long.
“The training staff has packed us full of strategy and determination. We will evaluate the opponent's ability and way of playing to come up with a reasonable plan.
"The whole team have come a long way through 11 unbeaten games. We have tried our best. We all have faith in nine more matches to try and hope to complete the championship goal. However, our leaders don’t put pressure on the players,” said Long.
According to Long, he believes the break due to the COVID-19 pandemic has helped teams have better recovery. He said that his team would be followed closely by their rivals, causing difficulties for the team before the event’s first leg closes.
"The teams that reach the second leg of eight teams to vie for the title will be very strong. The chance of winning the event will be divided equally among the teams. Sài Gòn still focus on each match and we don’t put much pressure. I am determined to take the championship with Sài Gòn,” said Long.
The southern side will take their next step towards an unlikely title against Viettel at Hàng Đẫy Stadium in Hà Nội at 5pm today. — VNS