Can Myanmar ride homefield advantage to victory?
ARE you ready for some inter-regional football? Myanmar will host Group B sides Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia as the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup kicks off at Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon from November 20 to 26.
Myanmar has never been able to claim ASEAN’s top football championship title – it placed fourth in 2004 – but this year, with a re-tooled and focused squad playing on home turf in the Golden Land, can Myanmar catch a break?
Euro-trip preparation The Myanmar national side won’t just be relying on home-field advantage. They prepared for the tournament by playing warm-up matches against second-tier European clubs and youth teams in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Cyprus.
The White Angles played eight friendlies over the six-week tour, notching four wins, two draws, and two losses. Head coach Gerd Zeise was said the trip was conceived both to give the team a chance to connect and build chemistry and to improve give the players’ confidence.
“European teams are better than Asian teams and stronger as well, so we benefited from starting against tougher competition in Europe,” the German coach said. Loss of a star The White Angels will be taking on Group B with two glaring absences, after the surprise sacking of veteran midfielder Thiha Zaw and star striker Kyaw Ko Ko in the midst of their European fixtures.
Yangon United’s premier goalmaker, Kyaw Ko Ko is widely considered Myanmar’s best striking talent. The speed-demon, who rose to national fame after scoring five goals at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games, has 38 caps for the national team, in which he’s scored eight goals.
The 23-year-old’s shock dismissal drove adoring fans to Facebook to demand the striker’s reinstatement to the squad before the Suzuki Cup, but Zeise reasoned that the striker was a poor fit for the playing style he wanted to develop with the national team, which would focus on strong teamwork rather than individual talents.
In Kyaw Ko Ko’s place at the top of the formation, Zeise has tapped Yadanarbon forward Win Naing Soe and 23-year-old Kaung Sett Naing. A former Yangon United striker now playing for Thailand’s second-tier Samut Sakhon, the fleetfooted Kaung Sett Naing has worn Myanmar’s U-19, U-21 and U-23 kits, and was on the 28th SEA Games U-23 squad that took the silver medal in Singapore in 2015.
Shan United captain Win Min Htut also received a call-up. At 36, the 30-capped Win Min Htut will be among the oldest players on the team.
“Win Min Htut is an amazing player,” Shan United head coach Soe Myat Min said previously. “There’s not many like him – he participated in all of our team matches last season. Didn’t miss a single game. His experience will be a big support for the national team.”
The national squad will also be able to call on Yadanarbon veteran Than Paing, Suan Lam Mang and Aung Thu to lend fresh legs to the attack.
Early disappointment Myanmar fans may have been hoping the White Angels would come roaring back from the successes of their European tour, but unfortunately it wasn’t the case, as a November 4 friendly against Indonesia at Thuwunna Stadium ended in a goalless draw.
More dispiriting than the performance was the team’s performance, as the midfielders seemed to lack coordination and seemed confused on the field. While new addition Kaung Sett Naing was able to run circles around the Indonesian defenders, the White Angels squandered multiple opportunities to score.
They’ll need to finish more decisively if they’re going to beat Group B favourites Vietnam, who took home the Suzuki Cup title in 2008. Malaysia, the 2010 Cup winners, are Myanmar’s main rivals for the runner-up position and qualification for the knockout round, but tournament underdogs Cambodia also put up 8 goals on their way to a perfect three wins in the qualifying rounds.
Oman friendly looms But before the Cup gets underway, the White Angels face Oman in a final friendly on November 14 at YTC. Oman, who notched two draws against Irish clubs in August before suffering a 4-0 drubbing by the Republic’s national side will be coming off a friendly against Japan on November 11.
Gerd Zeise admitted after the Indonesia match that Myanmar’s performance wasn’t strong enough to pass through the Suzuki Cup group stage, and he hoped that one more international friendly would provide the experience this group needs to gel.
“I’m not satisfied with our current level of performance. Our players are too slow, and they don’t play well enough together. They demonstrated much better form in the European friendlies, so I don’t understand why this is happening. I’m particularly disappointed by striker Aung Thu and midfielder Ye Ko Oo’s showings,” the coach said.
With not a lot of time left to get his team in form before the Suzuki Cup group matches, Zeise has his work cut out for him against Oman. It’s a big gamble with a young, untested squad, but it could pay off in the form of a first regional Cup title.