As Vietnam look to the future, Nguyen Quang Hai gives reminder of role he can still play

In his brief cameo appearance in Wednesday's 3-2 loss to Iraq, Nguyen Quang Hai showed he can still be the man to lead Vietnam into the future despite some troubled times recently. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

It looked like they had done enough to bow out of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup with at least something to show for their efforts.

It just was not to be for Vietnam.

Coming up against Group D winners Iraq on Wednesday, Vietnam thought they had earned a point when they equalised in the 91st minute despite playing the entire half a man down -- only for their hopes to eventually be shattered in the 12th minute of injury-time as the Iraqis converted a last-gasp penalty for a 3-2 victory.

At the very least, pride was certainly restored for Vietnam and, in all fairness, their campaign has been far from a disaster.

They were equally resilient and enterprising in a 4-2 opening loss to Japan but what ultimately cost them dearly was a 1-0 loss to Indonesia five days ago -- a match they had every chance of winning given they had not suffered defeat to their regional rivals in six previous occasions.

That loss condemned Vietnam to bottom spot even with a game still to play, which also meant this Asian Cup would ultimately be a disappointment for them considering they reached the quarterfinals in the last edition.

After the golden era that coincided with former coach Park Hang-Seo at the helm, it is apparent that the Golden Star Warriors are now set for a new -- and perhaps uncertain -- future under the experienced Philippe Troussier.

Even at this tournament, there has already been a changing of the guard with Vietnam being one of the youngest teams in the competition with an average age of just 24.

While former stalwarts like Vu Van Thanh and Do Duy Manh have settled for a place on the bench, in have come the likes of Nguyen Thai Son, Vo Minh Trong and Phan Tuan Tai.

None are older than 23 nor have more than ten caps to their names, yet all were given a chance by Troussier to play prominent roles at the tournament.

They might have been outclassed especially against Japan and Iraq, but they were never overawed -- which bodes well for Vietnam's future.

But even with the page potentially turning, one man would has defined the previous generation could still have an important role to play moving forward -- especially following his cameo appearance in Wednesday's loss to Iraq.

After his emergence in 2018, Nguyen Quang Hai rapidly becoming one of Southeast Asia's leading playmakers and a rising talent of the continent.

He would eventually earn a move to Europe when he joined French second-tier outfit Pau but that was when it all started to unravel.

Struggling for regular game time, Quang Hai eventually returned to his homeland when he joined Hanoi Police but his lack of match fitness and sharpness -- along with a handful of injuries along the way -- meant that he is no longer at the peak of his powers for now.

What he still possesses, however, is genuine game-changing ability and an appetite for the big occasion.

In his brief time on the field after coming on as a 72nd-minute substitute against Iraq, Quang Hai scored the goal that initially looked destined to earn Vietnam a point.

Having kept a forward foray alive on the edge of the opposition box, he then cleverly ghosted into a pocket of space and had the foresight to see where Nguyen Thanh Binh's flick-on header would eventually land before expertly placing a finish into the bottom corner.

It was the type of goal Quang Hai has scored numerous times in his career, and the kind of occasion he has already lit up previously at the last Asian Cup when he inspired Vietnam to a maiden quarterfinal appearance.

Still only 26, he has more than enough time to reignite his career.

And when he does, Quang Hai can certainly be the man to lead Vietnam into the future.