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All to play for in Hanoi

HANOI (Dec 26, 2008) - The fiercely competitive and highly entertaining AFF Suzuki Cup reaches its climax on Sunday with Vietnam looking to protect a slender one-goal advantage over tournament favourites Thailand in what is sure to be a jam-packed My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi.

Vietnam pulled off a smash-and-grab 2-1 victory over Thailand in the first leg of the final at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium on Wednesday.

The Vietnamese, playing with confidence and composure after their surprise 1-0 aggregate victory over Singapore in the semi-finals, withstood early pressure before hitting Thailand with two sucker punches just before half-time.

Thailand threw everything at Vietnam in a torrid second half and a goal from 20-year-old substitute striker Ronnachai Rangsiyo with his first touch of the ball in the 75th minute gave the three-time winners a lifeline.

Vietnam employed an ultra effective counter-attacking strategy in the first leg and coach Henrique Calisto will likely ask his players for a repeat performance in Hanoi.

Calisto is pragmatic enough to know that the tie is far from over and one of his main jobs will be bringing his players down from the high they experienced in Bangkok.

"We have not won anything yet," said the Portuguese. "The win over Thailand in the first leg was good, very good. But it is only the first step, the final is not yet finished.

"Thailand are a very good side and they are more experienced than us. We must come down from the win in Bangkok and realise that was just the first half of the final."

Vietnam beat Thailand 3-0 in the semi-finals of the 1998 edition of the tournament in Hanoi but surprisingly lost in the final to Singapore. They have never won the regional event and Calisto knows that particular psychological barrier will be as difficult to break down as the Thai defence.

"Vietnam has never won a major trophy – we have not won the South-East Asian Games or the Asean Football Championship," he said. "Our target is to win but it will be tough.

"However, football is beautiful because of the sort of thing that happened on Wednesday night (in Bangkok). A weaker team beat a stronger team. Only in football can this happen. I am very proud of this team. We are playing with more confidence (than at the start of the AFF Suzuki Cup) – that is the secret.

"Also, there is unity in the camp. The boys are honoured to play for the national team. They play with all their heart."

Thailand coach Peter Reid was left to rue a series of missed chances from his misfiring forward line and marvel at the shot-stopping heroics of Vietnam goalkeeper Duong Hong Son.

"When you get chances you have got to stick the ball in the net and we did not do that," said the former Manchester City and Sunderland boss. "We have to look at the number of chances we had and the wonderful saves from their keeper."

Reid praised Vietnam for the way they hit Thailand on the break but there was a sense that he will ensure that does not happen again in Hanoi where the Thais held the home side to a 2-2 draw in the T&T Cup last month.

"They played the counter-attacking game very well and we were a bit naïve for 10 minutes at the end of the first half and they scored two goals. But we have a foothold in the tie (with the goal from Ronnachai) and the final is not over yet," said the former England international.

Thailand missed the suspended Suchao Nutnum in the first leg and his return will give the team more width and pace on the right.

Reid will have to decide whether to stick with striker Teerathep Winothai, the scorer of just one goal, in the starting 11 or hand the responsibility of leading the line to Ronnachai, who has found the target three times.

Vietnam man-marked playmaker Datsakorn Thonglao in the first leg forcing him back into his own half where he was far less potent than usual and also played star striker Le Cong Vinh in a more withdrawn role on the left side where he used his straight line speed to good effect.

The game may hinge on the tactical battle between Reid and Calisto, who have both shown cunning in their selections and styles of play in the AFF Suzuki Cup.

The winners of the AFF Suzuki Cup will receive US$100,000 while the runners-up will get US$50,000.