South-east Asia's finest take centre stage
© AFP

Holders Malaysia enter this year's AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Suzuki Cup aiming to become the third nation to retain the crown, following Thailand and Singapore's successful title-defence in 2002 and 2007 respectively.

And as co-hosts alongside Thailand, coach Rajagobal Krishnasamy's Malaysia should have high hopes of success as they prepare to participate in the ninth edition of the tournament, previously known as the Tiger Cup, which runs 24 November to 22 December.

"Of course we want to finish as the best team of the campaign," the former national team striker told FIFA.com. "But first of all we must make sure we can do our job well during the group phase to qualify for the semi-finals, then the final. After that our players will be clear on what to do."

Under Krishnasamy, Malaysia tasted maiden regional success two years ago with a 4-2 aggregate victory over co-hosts Indonesia in the decider. Since then, the Malayan Tigers have made consistent progress with the coach even casting his sights beyond the region.

"This Suzuki Cup will be a good opportunity for us to prepare for next year's 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign," the 56-year-old continued. "We have given excitement for our fans over the past two years and obviously the team is heading in the right direction. We want to continue to improve in the regional competition, and showcase our progress which is needed for our bid for Australia 2015."

However, Malaysia open their Group B campaign against Singapore on the back of a four-match winless streak, with top-striker Safee Sali, who finished the 2010 campaign as top scorer with five goals, seemingly not in top form.

Krishnasamy, however, believes Sali and Co can live up to the expectations. He said: "He [Sali] has lost a bit of his momentum but he is picking up at the right moment. As for the team, the friendly results won't affect their form as they will enter the Singapore game fully-prepared."

Hard assignments
Having said that, it is Singapore that arrive in Kuala Lumpur in winning form with a recent 4-0 defeat of Pakistan boosting confidence, with playmaker Shi Jiayi and veteran striker Aleksandar Duric both on target. And Radojko Avramovic's visitors can take heart from their experience as three-time winners, with assistant coach Mike Wong vowing to recapture the coveted title for a record fourth time.

"We don't fear any team," said the former Geylang United manager. "We head into the competition where we must consider ourselves as one of the favourites. We're definitely going there to compete for the top prize."

Awaiting Malaysia next up will be none other than the Bambang Pamungkas-inspired Indonesia, who played out a scoreless draw against Cameroon U-23 recently. Even group minnows Laos can't be underestimated, having sealed their qualification for the regional finals by finishing ahead of Cambodia, Brunei Darussalam and Timor-Leste with striking-ace Visay Phaphouvanin netting twice.

Three-cornered contest
Group A looks likely to be a three-way battle among co-hosts Thailand, 2008 champions Vietnam and an fast-progressing Philippines, however Myanmar are more than capable of springing a surprise after coming through the qualification tournament.

Playing in front of their own supporters, the Thais open against Philippines on the back of three friendly wins including outmuscling Malaysia 2-0. Spearheading the home side's attacking-line is in-form Teerasil Dangda, who finished the last Thai league season as joint top-scorer with 24 goals as his Muang Thong United won the title unchallenged.

Despite losing all six previous meetings with Thailand since 1996, Philippines arrive in Bangkok with their sights fixed on not only winning the opener, but the tournament. Inspired by their surprise last-four finish in the previous edition, the team, under German coach Michael Weiss, can mount a serious challenge. The ambitious Azkals underlined their progress recently with a 1-0 defeat of Singapore and a goalless draw with Bahrain.

The other opener pits Myanmar against Vietnam and the latter can count on the goal-scoring form of their talisman Le Cong Vinh, who scored the tournament-winning goal as they edged out Thailand in the final for their only success in 2008. Myanmar, under former Korea Republic U-20 coach Park Sunghwa, will do whatever they can to improve on their last-four finish in the 2004 edition.