Monday, September 25, 2017

White Angels face regional rivals in Suzuki Cup showdown

After twelve years of Suzuki Cup futility, a revamped Myanmar squad has fought its way back to the semi-finals of the ASEAN Football Federation’s premier tournament. But now the White Angels face their biggest challenge yet in main rival and regional heavyweight Thailand on December 4 and 8 in a two-legged semi-final.

The White Angels, led by team captain Yan Aung Kyaw (centre), celebrate after their 1-0 win over Malaysia on November 26. Photo: Naing Lin Soe / The Myanmar TimesThe White Angels, led by team captain Yan Aung Kyaw (centre), celebrate after their 1-0 win over Malaysia on November 26. Photo: Naing Lin Soe / The Myanmar Times

It’s high time for Myanmar, who last competed in a Suzuki Cup semi-final over a decade ago, in 2004, when they lost to Singapore in Malaysia. This time, however, the feat will be exceptionally sweet, with the first leg being hosted in Myanmar for the first time, at Thuwunna YTC Stadium on December 4.

But the White Angels enter the match as decisive underdogs, having lost to Thailand three times and drawn just once since 2011, including two shut-outs in 2012 and 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup meetings.

The War Elephants entered the tournament as a finals favourite and topped Group A with a perfect record, including a 4-goal performance over group runners-up Indonesia. The White Angels advanced out of Group B in second-place, with victories over Cambodia, 3-1, and Malaysia, 1-0, and a 2-1 loss to group leader Vietnam.

Thailand national team coach Kiatisuk Senamuang isn’t discounting the White Angels, however.

“This is going to be a tough game to play away. Myanmar is a strong team this year, and we’re sure their home spectators will be energised and out in force to support their side. The home crowd support will be a strong motivation for Myanmar,” he said.

He’s not wrong. Myanmar’s fans have shown out in force for the White Angels’ home matches, with more than 28,000 fans attending the opening match against Vietnam on November 20 and nearly 33,000 packing Thuwunna YTC Stadium to capacity for the decisive victory over Malaysia on November 26 that pushed Myanmar into semi-finals.

“They have strong teamwork and their striking from the wing is very fast – particularly striker Aung Thu, who has been amazing this tournament. We won’t underestimate them,” Senamuang, a police lieutenant and former national team striker, said, noting the addition of youth and U20 World Cup players to the White Angels squad.

“I think physicality is going to be key in this semi-final. I’m preparing my players for very physically intensive games, but I’m not so worried by the crowds. My players have played in front of big crowds, and they are used to it,” he said.

Myanmar’s wing-based attack, a worrying early weakness in scoreless friendlies against Indonesia and Oman, has come into its own during the Suzuki Cup. Striker Aung Thu has scored twice already in the tournament, as has towering defender Zaw Min Tun, his coming via headers against Cambodia, while defenders Kyaw Zin Lwin and Nanda Kyaw have also been involved in creating pressure on the offensive side.

They’ll meet their biggest challenge yet in Thailand’s dangerous counterattack, however, led by veteran forwards Tana Chanabut and Adisak Kraisorn. The White Angels will have to contain them if they’re to have a prayer.

German head coach Gerd Zeise advised Myanmar’s spirited fan base to temper their expectations against such staunch competition.

“We’re very excited to be in the semi-final, but we’re not too lucky to be matched against Thailand. Thailand is the strongest team, top-to-bottom, in ASEAN, but so it goes – we’ll prepare our best. Our team’s performance has improved game-by-game, and I think we showed that particularly in the last result against Malaysia. But I still want to caution spectators: Don’t expect too much from the result,” he said.

In the tournament’s other semi-final, Indonesia host Vietnam tomorrow, before travelling to Hanoi on December 7.

Meanwhile, Malaysia cancelled two upcoming U22 friendlies in the wake of ongoing violence affecting the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Harimau Malaysia, Malaysia’s national team, posts on social media on November 30 that the team would not compete in friendlies planned against Myanmar on December 9 and 12.

The announcement came following threats from Malaysian Minister of Sport Khairy Jamaluddin last week that Malaysia might boycott from the Suzuki Cup. The Tigers played their full slate of group stage matches, but the issue was raised for a vote at a cabinet meeting on November 25. 

The axing is additionally contentious because the U22 squads are slated to compete in the 2107 Southeast Asian Games next August, which will be hosted in Kuala Lumpur.

On November 25, over 500 Malaysians and Rohingya demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur against the violence, while Myanmar’s ambassador to Malaysia was summoned. In a rare violation of ASEAN’s touted non-interference policy, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also condemned the violence at the annual assembly of his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) yesterday and declared his intention to attend another demonstration scheduled for December 3

“The government led by UMNO will do everything in its means to ensure the parties involved will stop the human rights violations,” he said. – with AFP

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