Thailand vs. Vietnam a fitting 2022 AFF Championship finale given duo's recent dominance

Thailand and Vietnam will meet in the final of the 2022 AFF Championship having combined to win the past four editions of Southeast Asia's premier international football tournament. AP Photo/Suhaimi Abdullah

Then there were two.

After three weeks of action at the 2022 AFF Championship, the lineup for the final is set.

And, despite the twists and turns that have come before in the group stage and semifinals, it is an unsurprising duo who will face off in the decider.

The reigning and record six-time champions Thailand, who have won three of the past four editions of the tournament while largely dominating Southeast Asian football for the past eight years, will do battle for glory with Vietnam, the 2018 winners who have been the only team to come close to staking a claim to be the region's top team in the same period.

As neighbouring countries, the rivalry between the two sides has always been fierce. In recent years, their fortunes on the football pitch has only intensified this.

Back in the qualification cycle for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Thais showed they were miles ahead of the rest by becoming the only Southeast Asian team to reach the third and final round of the Asian qualifiers.

Four years later, it was Vietnam who could lay claim to that accomplishment as they rubbed shoulders with continental heavyweights like Japan and Saudi Arabia as one of Asia's final 12 teams in the running to qualify for Qatar 2022.

The two teams have set their sights on bigger targets, with both having reached the knockout round at the last AFC Asian Cup and having qualified for the upcoming edition -- which looks set to be postponed to either the end of this year or the start of 2024.

In a clear sign that the Asian Cup is indeed higher on the agenda, Thailand coach Alexandre Polking did opt for a relatively experimental squad for the AFF Championship, leaving out star men like Chanathip Songkrasin and Supachok Sarachat even if he has still been able to call upon stalwarts such as Teerasil Dangda, Theerathon Bunmathan and Sarach Yooyen.

Yet, the AFF Championship remains a primary source of regional bragging rights, even more so in a part of the world like Southeast Asia, where winning an Asian Cup or getting to a World Cup still seems a while more in the making.

Even more so when the only thing standing in the way of silverware is an old enemy.

If that is not motivation enough already, Vietnam have the extra incentive of sending off coach Park Hang-seo on a high.

For so long a sleeping giant as they saw the likes of Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia succeed on the AFF stage, the arrival of Park in 2017 has coincided with the golden generation of Vietnamese football.

His pragmatic tactical style has attracted its fair share of critics but it is hard to argue with his achievements: an AFF triumph in 2018, a quarterfinal appearance at the 2019 Asian Cup, a fourth-place finish at the Asian Games, and back-to-back Southeast Asian Games gold medals being just some of the accolades.

Vietnam face an uncertain future once he departs at the end of the AFF Championship, with his successor yet to be named.

What is less ambiguous is the fact that, under his tutelage, Vietnam have been the only team capable of challenging Thailand as the dominant force in Southeast Asian football in the recent years.

And that is exactly what makes a decider between the two teams, starting with Friday's first leg at My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi, a fitting finale to the 2022 AFF Championship.