Thailand vs Myanmar: Jumbo task to slay an old ghost

Myanmar can banish pain of 1993 loss but mighty Thais are in the way

THE GREY concrete bowl has since been replaced by a high-tech dome with a retractable roof and shimmering LED lights, but the bittersweet memories just will not fade for Kyi Lwin.

His finest hour and worst heartache all came on that same patch of turf at the old National Stadium but tonight, given a second chance, Myanmar's SEA Games football coach has vowed to bury a ghost from days gone past.

"Stadium has changed but emotions, yes, I still feel when I go there," said the 50-year-old, thumping his chest for dramatic effect on his treasured and traumatic flashbacks.

At the peak of his box-to-box midfield prowess in 1993, it was the setting first of pleasure, then pain.

Against the odds, Myanmar stunned the Fandi Ahmad-led hosts in the Games semi-finals, courtesy of a dramatic 5-4 penalty shootout victory after a thrilling 3-3 draw.

But in the final, bidding for a first football gold since 1973, Kyi and Co could not stop Thailand's gilded attack of Kiatisuk Senamuang and Piyapong Pue-on, falling 3-4 in an epic battle.

"Very painful, I will never forget that - we came so close," Kyi told The Straits Times yesterday.

It was the first of eight consecutive golds for the Thais at the biennial showpiece. Myanmar never reached the final again - until tonight.

Kyi seeks to inspire his Under-23 grafters to reverse the result from 22 years ago.

It would be a fairytale finish to a dream run from the White Angels who are under-strength and the underdogs against an in-sync, on-fire Thai outfit.

Myanmar's prime talents were selected to compete at the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand or the ongoing 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

Star striker Kyaw Ko Ko and playmaker Naing Lin Oo may not be here but what their replacements have is plenty of grit.

Backed by a fanatical support who cheer even when tackles or corners are won, Kyi's outfit press incessantly for 90 minutes.

They refuse to be overawed by more technical opposition, waiting for the opportune moment to pounce with pace down the flanks and defending stoutly once they grab the lead.

Just two shots on target were mustered in Saturday's semi-final against Vietnam - but it was good enough for a 2-1 upset.

"We treat Thailand the same as the other opponents," said captain Nay Lin Tun, 22. "If we stick to our style and never give up, we will win in 90 minutes. No extra-time or penalties are needed."

It is a bold claim, particularly as the Thais have showcased a brand of football that is delighting their fans and devastating rivals.

Led by forwards Chanathip Songkrasin and Nurul Sriyankem, the War Elephants have 21 goals in six matches, conceding once.

The 5-0 whitewash of Indonesia in their semi-final even had some Singapore fans musing in relief over the damage that could have been inflicted on the Young Lions had they progressed.

Thailand coach Choketawee Promrut called for more of the same from his squad.

"I told them to give me one more good performance," said the former defender who played in the S-League for the likes of Tampines Rovers and Gombak United.

"There is no point scoring so many goals but not getting the gold.

A 10 million baht (S$400,000) bonus reportedly awaits the team if they defend their crown.

Captain and midfield enforcer Sarach Yooyen, 23, said: "There will no complacency from us.

"We want to keep Thailand at the top of Asean football, where we belong."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg

Final: Myanmar v Thailand

Singtel TV Ch134 & okto, 8.30pm

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