MANILA • Plotted by old heads and led by old hands, but the tussle for the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup could well be won by young men with the weight of their countries on their shoulders.
While Singapore caretaker coach V. Sundramoorthy and Thailand boss Kiatisuk Senamuang devise the strategies, with veterans like Hassan Sunny and Teerasil Dangda key to their plans, the big battle in tonight's Group A clash is possibly fought by two young midfielders.
And the contrast between Singapore's M. Anumanthan and Thailand Sarach Yooyen could not have been more stark: Power versus precision, destruction versus creation and, visually, the bearded versus the clean shaven.
Anu, 22, enjoys doing the hatchet man's job for Sundram, and Sarach, 24, the deluxe midfielder from Thailand, is next on his hit list.
"Definitely, I'm geared up for it. I treat all my opponents the same. I won't say this guy is better than me or something like that," he told The Straits Times yesterday.
"I will just go out there and take (Sarach) seriously."
By "seriously", what the defensive midfielder means is stopping the smooth operator of Thailand's engine room with a few crunching tackles and prevent Sarach from orchestrating the War Elephants' symphony of passing football.
Anu said: "Most of us are excited about this game against Thailand, they are a strong team but we are raring to go. We're going out there to get a win, we are not scared of them. We will stick to our game plan and focus on what we will do.
"Any team will have their weaknesses. We have the video people (to analyse Thailand's tactics), we will look through it and work on it during training."
Earning his 10th cap in the 0-0 draw against the Philippines last Saturday, Anu was key in nullifying the Azkals on their home ground as he protected the defence with his work rate and hard challenges.
It is such displays, along with starting 23 of Hougang United's 24 S-League matches, that landed him the Young Player of the Year award.
"I always liked to win games. Be it to support the attack or help the defence, I will do whatever the coach tells me to do," he said of his abrasive approach.
"I have a job to do in this team, and they are different tasks than my role at Hougang. It's about being disciplined, controlling yourself and working for the team.
"I want to work even harder. This is my dream. I'm young and I'm very grateful for this opportunity and I want to take it and not let go."
One suspects that he will not let go of Sarach on the pitch today, too.
Wang Meng Meng