Thailand still the favourites in AFF Championship but Indonesia, Philippines should pose tests in Group A

Thailand's quest for a 7th AFF Championship title will be without talismanic playmaker and three-time Most Valuable Player Chanathip Songkrasin, who has been rested for the upcoming tournament. AP Photo/Suhaimi Abdullah

Less than a year after winning a record-extending 6th crown at the coronavirus-delayed 2020 edition of the tournament, Thailand will be gunning for regional glory once again when the AFF Championship kicks off on Tuesday.

Having swept aside all that stood before them last time out, the War Elephants will be the favourites in Group A but there is a possibility that they could be less dominant this time around.

One of the main reasons behind this is the fact that coach Alexandre Polking seems to have gone with a semi-experimental side -- although there is good reason for this.

The Thais have long been powerhouses of Southeast Asian football. While winning another AFF crown will be the target, there are bigger assignment on the horizon -- primarily in the form of the upcoming AFC Asian Cup, which was originally set to take place in the middle of next year but now looks set to be postponed for another six months or so.

Having reached the knockout stage at the last Asian Cup, the next real test for them should be to continue having an impact on the larger continental stage and not just be content with dominating within their own region.

And with 15 of his 23-man squad boasting 15 caps or less to their names, Polking is not only allowing himself to trial some potential options for when the Asian Cup rolls around and also providing these hopefuls with an opportunity to prove their worth, while ensuring stalwarts such as three-time Most Valuable Player Chanathip Songkrasin receives a well-deserved break.

But there remains a handful of the old guard that should still ensure the War Elephants have every chance of going all the way.

With Teerasil Dangda, the most-feared striker in Southeast Asia over the past decade, leading the way alongside fellow veterans Theerathon Bunmathan and Sarach Yooyen, Polking can call upon a wealth of experience that combine for seven AFF winners' medals.

Rising stars Kritsada Kaman and Ekanit Panya could also use the tournament to prove they can playing increasingly influential roles for the Thais although it is in goal where the real concern could be, with none of the options having made more than three senior international appearances respectively.

While Thailand begin their campaign on Monday against Brunei Darussalam, their likeliest challengers for top spot in Group A -- Indonesia -- will have to wait to show how far they have come since a young and vibrant outfit captured the imagination at the 2020 edition before ultimately finishing runners-up, with their campaign only getting started on Dec. 23.

Plenty of that team will once again be present, now wiser and more seasoned, but it is the inclusions that could really make a difference.

Former Swansea man Jordi Amat, who qualified for Indonesian citizenship through his grandmother, should shore up the Garuda defence, while fellow-naturalised man Ilija Spasojevic will pose a threat for any defence -- having been one of coach Shin Tae-yong's most-controversial omissions last time out.

Add in the undeniable talents that are Witan Sulaeman, Egy Maulana and Saddil Ramdani and the Indonesians could easily have a team capable of final delivering the AFF trophy after a heartbreaking six runners-up finishes.

So is it certain to be Thailand and Indonesia that qualify for the semifinals?

Not if Philippines have their say, although the Azkals have once again had an uncertain build-up having only just announced Josep Ferre as their man in charge, with the unveiling of a new coach on the eve a major tournament now seemingly customary.

Philippines always have the ability to turn it on, especially as long as evergreen playmaker Stephan Schrock is pulling the strings, and they did claim the biggest win at the last tournament when they thrashed Timor-Leste 7-0.

Nonetheless, aside from Schrock, Mark Hartmann and Amani Aguinaldo, there is a distinct lack of inexperience in the squad -- and a coach with limited time to prepare with his new charges.

As for Group A's final two contenders?

Cambodia should be looking to improve on their record of one win and four draws from the last edition, especially with home advantage this time around.

Victory over the Bruneians is a most, but they could potentially look to spring a surprise on Philippines and get a draw at least.

For Brunei, returning to the AFF Championship after a 26-year absence for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1996 is already a job well done.

They should enjoy the occasion while looking to ensure they maintain their pride. Anything else would be a bonus.