Viet Nam has its work cut out for defending its title at the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cup 2010 Championship next month, with opponents keen to prove their mettle, and its own preparations going through a sticky patch.
The national team have had a poor record since being crowned champion at the region's biggest football competition in 2008. The team failed to qualify for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup and have had an unimpressive run of results in the lead to the upcoming AFF championship.
The team lost all three friendlies this year against German Bundesliga team Eintracht Franfurt, India and Kuwait; and put in a disappointingly lacklustre performance in two international tournaments in Ha Noi, including a draw with a depleted Singapore team.
But what makes fans even more nervous is that head coach Henrique Calisto was having a lot of difficulty in forging a framework that is effective in both attack and defence.
The position of goalkeeper is perhaps less of a headache for Calisto with Bui Tan Truong and Duong Hong Son both playing well and having no injury problems.
The defence also has experienced players like Vu Nhu Thanh, Nguyen Huy Hoang, Le Phuoc Tu and Nguyen Minh Duc. These players need to practise together to increase the understanding and flow between them.
The midfield would be more of a concern for Calisto, with both Nguyen Minh Phuong and Phan Van Tai Em a little bit older and likely to find it difficult to compete at their peak level for the whole of a tense game. However, Phuong and Em will be supported by the powerful Nguyen Trong Hoang and skilful Pham Thanh Luong.
The lack of attacking options is probably the most difficult problem for Calisto at the moment, as first-choice strikers Nguyen Viet Thang and Le Cong Vinh are injured and not sure of being able to play.
Nguyen Quang Hai seems to perform better as a substitute.
Le Sy Manh seems to need more experience of big tournaments while Nguyen Anh Duc has inexplicably refused to play for the national team.
Viet Nam's title defence gets even harder as key opponents are even more determined than ever to win the coveted trophy.
Among the main contenders, Thailand are still the favourites. They have hired Bryan Robson (former English international) and would surely have mapped out plans to take back the title they have missed since 2002.
Indonesia, meanwhile, have been inspired by Viet Nam's victory and are entertaining title ambitions as well. They have hired Alfred Riedl, former Viet Nam coach who has a lot of experience in Southeast Asia, to help end their medal drought.
Moreover, Indonesia has Uruguayan-born Christian Gonzales, who has been the top scorer in the Indonesia Super League for five seasons. Gonzales, along with Bambang Pamungkas and Boaz Solossa can prove a threat to other teams.
The Indonesia Football Federation has reportedly given Riedl an ultimatum: win the AFF Cup 2010 or lose the job.
After taking part many tournaments in Viet Nam, Singaporean coach Radojko Abramovic seemed to have figured out the solution to contain the Vietnamese team.
Singapore's Olympic team and national team both fared well against Viet Nam in recent tournaments in the country, not losing any of their matches against the host.
Singapore also has a squad of experienced players like three naturalised Aleksandar Duric, Agu Casmir, Daniel Bennett and Lionel Lewis. They are going to be a difficult team to beat.
Malaysia and Myanmar will certainly pull out all the stops as well to spring a surprise after they failed to qualify for the semi-final two years ago.
The Philippines and Laos, qualifiers, also promise to cause difficulties for strong teams with the progress they have shown recently. The Philippines in particular, with English coach Simon McMenemy can prove a handful for their opponents. Their midfielder Jason De Jong and goalkeeper Neil Etheridge are both playing football in Europe.
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