Singapore in fourth heaven
Singapore became the first team to lift the AFF Suzuki Cup trophy on four occasions on Saturday, edging out co-hosts Thailand 3-2 on aggregate despite losing the second-leg showdown in Bangkok 1-0.
In a much-anticipated final between two of the tournament's most successful sides, both have three titles each, Raddy Avramovic's Lions opened brightly last Wednesday by overpowering Winfried Schafer's Warring Elephants 3-1 at home.
The return match saw the Thais dominate from outset to finish as the home side sought to bounce back. And Kirati Keawsombut's opening goal before the break did boost their hopes of a comeback, but the visitors defended gallantly thereafter as they held on to overcome the opponents by the slightest of margins.
Avramovic's last bow
The record-making victory was a fitting end to Avramovic's near-decade spell in charge of Singapore, with the 63-year-old Serbian to leave after the campaign. Having taken the city state to Suzuki Cup in 2004 and 2007, he firmly stated his intent to recapture the regional laurels this time around even prior to the tournament decider.
"Singapore has won the tournament three times so we think it is really a good achievement that we lift the trophy for a fourth time," the former Kuwait coach told FIFA.com in an exclusive pre-match interview. "It will be special for me, in a way, to win it with the team (for a third time)."
After achieving his goal, he opted to play down the part he played during what should be his last game in charge. "I must thank all players, because they won the cup for Singapore. We trusted each other and we utilise the faith to build a winning team."
The Lions did indeed display such unity and resolve throughout. They stunned defending champions Malaysia 3-0 in the opener with captain Shahril Ishak twice on target, before seeing off Indonesia 1-0. A 3-2 defeat of Laos set them up against an impressive Philippines in the last four, where they scraped through with Khairul Amri scoring the only goal in the return after a goalless first leg.
Despite Thailand's near-miss, the tournament again provided their striking-ace Teerasil Dangda with the stage to shine. The 24-year-old exploded on to the regional scene in the 2008 edition by finishing joint top-scorer in the tournament with four goals as his side came second overall. Four years on, he emulated the feat as he netted five times to earn the golden boot.
Dangda completed a treble as they crushed Myanmar 4-0 during the group phase, before striking in each leg against Malaysia in the semi-finals to fire his side through 3-1 on aggregate. Aside from his free-scoring form, of course, it was the entire team's performance that provided coach Schafer with food for thought.
"Everyone of our team played very well throughout the final," said the German tactician, "We were the better team but anything could happen in football. We have a good team and can become stronger in the future. We will now look forward to the Asian Cup qualifying and we will have to start working hard.''
Also worth mentioning were the Philippines, who continued their progress under Michael Weiss by storming into the last four. Despite falling short against Thailand by losing 2-1 in the opener, the Azkals rallied to dispatch Vietnam SR 1-0 and outmuscled Myanmar 2-0 to book their place in the semi-finals.
Even holders Malaysia had reason for optimism despite bowing out in the last four. In what proved to be a roller-coaster campaign for the co-hosts, coach Rajagobal Krishnasamy's side were dealt an opening blow with a 3-0 defeat to nemesis Singapore.
In a pre-tournament interview with FIFA.com, Rajagobal had said he would focus on not only retaining the title but also preparing his side for next March's 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifying. And despite the team's semi-finalist showings, he insisted the goals he set for the team remain unchanged.
"I’m not disappointed with the result. The players have no reason to feel ashamed because they played well and gave it their all," the former Malaysian international forward said. "We proved that we’re still among the most feared teams in the region. My focus now will shift to the Asian Cup qualifiers and I’ll continue to build a strong national team."