After losing AFF Suzuki Cup crown, where do Vietnam go from here?

Having been crowned kings of Southeast Asian in 2018, and widely regarded as the region's best team in the three years since, Vietnam's reign is officially over.

A 0-0 draw in the second leg of their AFF Suzuki Cup 2020 semifinal against Thailand on Sunday evening saw them fall to a 2-0 aggregate defeat, as their title defence fell short even before the decider.

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The Vietnamese can take pride in the fact they remain the only Southeast Asian team still active in the qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but their prospects on that front also look bleak given they have lost all six matches so far.

So where do they go from here?

Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that -- barring the obvious disappointment of failing to retain the title -- Vietnam's campaign has been far from disastrous.

They only lost once all tournament long in a semifinal first leg defeat to the Thais, with the two goals they conceded in that tie the only they allowed in six matches.

Their cause was neither helped by the fact that their players had not played much regular club football with domestic action on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nor the fact that mental fatigue would have been seeping in given the team have largely been confined together for months now given their World Cup qualifying commitments.

The talent at their disposal is undeniable but the relinquishing of their crown only further highlights a problem that has been plaguing Vietnamese football -- the need for their brightest prospects to take the next step in their careers.

For all their quality, the likes of Nguyen Quang Hai, Nguyen Hoang Duc and Nguyen Tien Linh still ply their trade domestically. Putting aside the lack of football they have played as a result of that, these stars are also not testing themselves further and run the risk of being too comfortable as big fish in a small pond.

The issue may not exactly lie with their ambition (or lack thereof), given there is an unspoken consensus among the country's footballing fraternity that the players are being tied down by their clubs, who view them as valuable commodities both on and off the field.

Yet it is time that these teams see the bigger picture and allow the Quang Hais and Hoang Ducs to spread their wings for the greater good.

The impact that could have was apparent against Thailand, who boasted several players who have ventured abroad in recent times, including captain and playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin.

While Quang Hai struggled to have a major influence on proceedings, Chanathip -- who has spent the last four-and-a-half years in Japan's J1 League with Consadole Sapporo -- rose to the occasion with a tie-winning two-goal display, looking an even more influential figure than he did when he was named the Suzuki Cup's Most Valuable Player in 2014 and 2016 owing to the lessons he has learnt playing regularly at a higher level.

There is also the question of whether Vietnam have gone as far as they can under coach Park Hang-seo, although he has plenty of credit in the bank for all that they have achieved under him since he took over in 2017.

The South Korean, who also led them to a quarterfinal appearance at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, stressed the need for more time with this team immediately after their Suzuki Cup exit on Sunday.

His players certainly did not stop fighting for him and the cause against Thailand, but perhaps more alarming was his revelation that -- when questioned about a game plan that did not work -- he attributed the failure to a couple of his charges not adhering to instructions after being brought on in Nguyen Cong Phuong and Nguyen Van Toan.

If Park and Vietnam have really achieved all they can together, now could be a good time for them to go their separate ways. Even if they still have the remainder of the World Cup qualifiers to complete, that appears to be little more than a pride-salvaging mission.

For all the talent that Park has unearthed and nurtured over the past few years, Vietnam can still be top dogs of Southeast Asia. They just have to decide how they are going to find their way back to the summit.