|Thailand favourites for third Tiger Cup crown|
Tiger Cup champions Thailand are the clear favourites to capture the
South East Asian football title for a third time when the 2002
competition gets underway this weekend in Jakarta.
The Thai national team have established themselves as the dominant football force in the ASEAN region over the past decade with victories in two of the three previous editions of the Tiger Cup and gold medals at five consecutive South East Asian (SEA) Games football tournaments.
Currently coached by former England international Peter Withe, the Thais also impressed during the recent Busan Asian Games where they defeated Yemen, Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates and North Korea on their run to the semi-finals.
Withe's main concern appears to be the fact that his Tiger Cup squad has only been together for the past two weeks for centralised training, while the team's ASEAN rivals are already in advanced preparations.
"It will be an uphill task to prepare the team to take on Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam, who started training three months ago," said Withe.
"But I believe if the players can get to high levels of physical fitness, we will stand a good chance of winning," he added.
The Thais will be missing veteran midfielder Tawan Sripan due to a left leg injury, but star striker Kiatisuk 'Zico' Senamaung, Tiger Cup 2000 final hat-trick hero Worrawoot Srimaka and influential midfielder Therdsak Chaiman should provide plenty of firepower for the team currently ranked 70th in the FIFA World Ranking.
There will be added motivation for veteran midfielder Surachai Jaturapattarapong who is hoping to bow out of international football with another Tiger Cup championship.
"The Tiger Cup will be my last tournament for Thailand. I know that I am getting old and there are many rising players coming through who will replace me," says the 33-year-old, who has recently signed for Singapore league side Home United.
Thailand have been drawn in a tough Group B with co-hosts Singapore, Malaysia and Laos, but their biggest championship rivals are expected to be the other co-hosts Indonesia, whom they beat 4-1 in the Tiger Cup 2000 final in Bangkok.
The Indonesians are in a relatively easier Group A with Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, and they will also enjoy home advantage if the team makes it to the semi-finals and final.
The passionate support of the Indonesian fans at the Gelora Senayan Stadium should prove invaluable to the home team, who are highly motivated to bring the country their first football prize since the 1991 SEA Games gold medal.
"We have a very strong following at home and we are hoping that the support will help us to well in the tournament," says Indonesian captain Bambang Pamungkas. "We play better at home than away as every time there is a match at home, there will be at least 60,000 supporters.
"Indonesia have not won anything for more than 10 years and the Tiger Cup will provide a good platform for us to put an end to that barren spell. The Tiger Cup is a big tournament and with good morale running in the camp and a good coach, we are going all out to win the competition."
The Indonesian side have been training under Bulgarian coach Ivan Kolev for the past three months and after a successful tour of Australia in November, they will be in a confident mood when they kick off the Tiger Cup against tournament dark-horses Myanmar on Sunday evening.
Group A's second favourites Vietnam will also be in action on Sunday when they take on minnows Cambodia in a later match.
With just four teams, Group B will not kick off until next Wednesday when Thailand play Laos, and Singapore clash with rivals Malaysia.
The Singapore-Malaysia match is likely to be crucial with the winner expected to advance with Thailand to the semi-finals. The two teams met in Kuantan in July with Singapore winning 2-1 in extra time, but the co-hosts proved less than impressive in a 2-0 win over the Philippines on Wednesday, while the Malaysians romped to a 5-0 victory over Cambodia on the same day.
The Tiger Cup final is scheduled for the Gelora Senayan Stadium on December 29.