News - December 16, 2018 | 09:44 pm PT

Unforgettable: Vietnam’s AFF Cup 2018 journey

Vietnam is the best football team in Southeast Asia again, and their journey back to the top was remarkable.

Vietnam perfectly ended a very impressive run at the AFF Cup 2018 with a 1-0 victory in the second leg of the final, proving without a doubt that they belonged on the regional summit.

The team was unbeaten throughout the tournament, with six wins and two draws; they scored 15 goals and only conceded four. Take a look at this pictorial journey.

Vietnam was drawn in group A with Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. They started with a bang, beating Laos 3-0 in an away match. In this tournament, Vietnam used formation 3-4-3 in every game, with three centre backs, two wing backs, two midfielders and three forwards.

Back home for their second match against Malaysia, their toughest group A opponent, Vietnam played counter attack and won 2-0 despite Malaysia dominating possession and number of shots.

Next, Vietnam played away again in Myanmar. Whoever won the match would take temporary top spot. The game ended goalless with a controversial decision from the referee in disallowing Nguyen Van Toan’s goal, who was not offside when he tapped the ball in.

In their last group stage match, Vietnam only needed a draw with Cambodia to qualify for the semifinals, so coach Park fielded several new faces in the starting lineup, giving some rest to key players. However, another 3-0 win at home put Vietnam in the semifinals with the top spot in group A. Throughout the group stage games their defense had proved impenetrable, and Vietnam conceded no goals.

Vietnam’s opponent in semifinals was the Philippines, coached by world renowned Sven-Goran Eriksson, who’d placed second in group B. They traveled for the first leg to Panaad Stadium in Bacolod, and won 2-1. Vietnam took the lead with Nguyen Anh Duc’s header, but the Philippines equalized minutes before the first half ended.

Phan Van Duc secured victory when he scored the second goal for Vietnam, clearing the offside trap and gliding the ball into the net.

For the second leg in the semifinal, a determined Philippines arrived at Hanoi’s My Dinh Stadium. With players strong in the air, they used long balls and crosses, and deployed hard tackles on Vietnamese players. However, Vietnam’s defenders stayed focused under pressure.

When the opponents started flagging a bit, Vietnam struck. Phan Van Duc assisted Nguyen Quang Hai to open the scoreboard for Vietnam. Minutes later, super sub Nguyen Cong Phuong doubled the lead. All the Philippines could do was shorten the lead and the game ended 2-1 in Vietnam’s favor.

Facing Malaysia again at the final in front of close to 80,000 Malaysian fans, coach Park placed Nguyen Huy Hung and Pham Duc Huy together in the midfield for the first time, and surprisingly, both of them scored in quick time. Vietnam had two goals in Malaysia’s massive Bukit Jalil Stadium.

However, Vietnam couldn’t keep the lead for too long. Malaysia equalized from two set pieces. Vietnam also had some chances but they couldn’t find the nets. The final’s first leg ended 2-2.

Back on home ground with two away goals as an advantage, Vietnam struck very early with a volley from Nguyen Anh Duc, virtually putting the game beyond their opponent’s reach. With nothing to lose, Malaysia launched a full-scale offensive, but Vietnam’s defenders stood firm, thanks in no small part to goalkeeper Dang Van Lam.

The final whistle blew and Vietnam were Southeast Asian champions again after 10 long years.

After the game, the players showed their gratitude to head coach Park, by throwing him in the air. Park Hang-seo has been the architect behind Vietnam’s highly successful 2018. First, he lead the U23 team to finish runner up at the U23 Asian Cup, beating fancied opponents. Then, he took Vietnam’s Olympic team to the semifinals of the Asian Games for the very first time in the nation’s history, before the crowning glory came at the AFF Cup.

Take a look back at the highlights of Vietnam's AFF Cup 2018 journey through the goals:

Story by Tuan Hoang, photos by Duc Dong