Goal.com Singapore writer Kenneth Tan explains why the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup final is a battle between two of Southeast Asia's finest sides.
By Kenneth Tan
Mention traditional Southeast Asian football rivalry to most football supporters in this region, and talk will invariably turn to the Singapore-Malaysia Causeway Derby.
There is no doubt that in terms of geographical distance, the two countries are always looking to get one over each other. The rivalry has grown stronger in recent years, with Malaysia's success in the 2010 AFF Cup and 2011 SEA Games taking the region by storm, which in turn has further highlighted the alarming halt in Singapore's progress.
However with the delightful opening-day win over their bitter rivals that kicked off Singapore's campaign, and the Malaysians' subsequent exit to Thailand in the semi-finals, normal service has arguably been restored.
And it is hard to find many who will refute this statement - the two teams left standing in the competition are Southeast Asia's finest.
To draw parallels from the English-football context, it's akin to a Manchester United-Liverpool match-up in ASEAN football.
When Sir Alex Ferguson took over the Red Devils hotseat in 1986, he promised to knock Liverpool off the perch. He eventually did so, winning 12 English league titles that pushed United's tally to 19, one more than the Reds.
Closer to home, Singapore football was languishing at the bottom of a pit when Raddy Avramovic took over in 2003.
A 4-0 drubbing by Malaysia kicked off a disastrous 2002 AFF Cup campaign, with Thailand surging ahead with 3 ASEAN titles as compared to our solitary triumph in 1998 - the Serbian soon corrected all those wrongs with two successive titles in 2004 and 2007 to draw level with Thailand's tally.
Vietnam and Malaysia may have had their moments of glory in the past few years, but Singapore and Thailand are proving to be like phoenixes rising from the ashes.
Through recent trials and tribulations, both sides have grown and emerged to be the two best sides in this edition.
The Thais are on a renaissance after a disastrous group-stage exit in 2010 - out went coach Bryan Robson and the old guard in Therdsak Chaiman, Suchao Nutnum and Sutee Suksomkit. In came German-born coach Wilfried Schaefer, who brought in motivated individuals like the emerging Anucha Kitpongsri, Jakkapan Pornsai and Theerathon Bunmathan.
Along with seasoned campaigners Datsakorn Thonglao and Teerasil Dangda, the Thais have recovered their brand of 'tom-yum' football.
On the other hand, Singapore has thrived on a different approach - not pretty, not merry and riding their luck at times, Raddy's brand of no-frills football has nevertheless proved ruthlessly efficient.
The Lions XII project has its fair share of critics, but it is no coincidence that the Lions are in the final with the majority of the players coming from the Malaysian Super League side.
Spending the calendar year together has indeed improved the team spirit - with Shaiful Esah and Shahril Ishak in particular coming of age in this campaign.
Both sides are currently on three ASEAN titles and a record fourth beckons.
We would hate to admit it, but the Thais have set the benchmark in the earlier days of ASEAN football, and will always be admired by Singaporeans.
Fervent S.League followers will certainly attest to this fact - the likes of Kiatisak Senamuang, Therdsak Chaiman, Sutee Suksomkit, Tawan Sripan and J. Surachai lit up the S.League in the early 2000s not only with their outstanding ability, but also their attitude and efforts to improve their game.
Their image may be slightly tainted after the infamous 2007 walk-out incident at the Kallang Stadium, but no one will doubt their dedication to the game.
Indeed after last night's 3-1 win, the tie is very much in our control. However it will be a foolish notion to think that the record fourth crown in already in the bag.
An early Thailand goal at the Suphachalasai is all that could take for things to go horribly wrong again, seeing as a 2-0 win is enough for the Thais to overturn the tie.
In order to survive the daunting away atmosphere, our Lions will need to replicate that 110% effort and commitment from Wednesday.
Five years on, there are many changes to the ecosphere of Thai football but one thing remains - the brilliant yet pesky Datsakorn Thonglao.
With bags of tricks up his sleeve, both on-the-ball and off it, our Lions will do well not to react to the playmaker's antics.
The Thais have extra motivating factors to turn this around and find success in this campaign - be it a chance to be hailed as the best team in ASEAN football, or their 10 years of hurt since their last triumph in 2002.
But deep down in the hearts of the Thai faithful, there will be the niggling notion that they were 'robbed' in 2007, considering the fortuitous circumstances that led to the match-winning penalty in the first leg of that final.
We have done superbly in the first leg to banish that notion, at least temporarily; playing with style and rigour, battling hard on the pitch and showcasing our abilities at our Jalan Besar home.
The second leg provides us a chance to put that idea to bed once and for all - and achieve what even the most optimistic of Singapore fans will not have dreamt of before the tournament - ride out all obstacles to emerge as kingpins of ASEAN football again and for a record fourth time.
Come on you Lions!