The AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup 2022 is almost upon us as the eyes of fans from across ASEAN shift from events in Qatar to Southeast Asia's regional festival of football. 

As the most decorated nation in the tournament’s history, as well as being the defending champions, the focus will be on Thailand’s title defence as they prepare to get things underway with a clash against the play-off winner Brunei Darussalam on December 20.

On the eve of the tournament, we sat down with Thailand coach Mano Polking, who gave his thoughts on the nation’s chances, some new-look faces in the squad and just which teams he considers the ones to beat.

What is the mood and mentality like in the squad as the tournament nears?

Polking: It’s very clear, exactly the same as last time and we really want to defend the title and we believe we have the quality for that.

We are always one of the contenders but at the same time I’m honest to say it’s a little bit of a different scenario from last year because then there was no World Cup and no conflict with the schedule so we could call all the players and they were available to us.

Now it’s a bit different that we are missing a lot of players that would have played a key role here but I don’t want to use that as an excuse, not at all.

You have to remember that we still have a lot of experience with Teerasil [Dangda], Theerathon [Bunmathan] and Sarach [Yooyen] plus Kritsada [Kaman] who last time was the main guy in our defence. 

Add in some younger guys and some more experienced guys that are doing well with their clubs and that makes me believe that we can do it. Now it’s about the work.

We have to concentrate and focus because we don’t have much space for mistakes when you play eight games in 27 days but I really believe that we have the quality to defend the title even missing a lot of important players.

With some players missing that opens the doors for others to impress though, what were you looking for when selecting the final squad?

Polking: I wanted to find a balance between the ages, I always like to have some experienced players and also give the chance for some younger players.

When we knew that some players will not be there it means that other players will get the chance and that’s what we’re totally focussed on because these guys now have a chance and the opportunity to make a big step in their careers and this is what motivates me as a coach.

I always wanted to bring some players in that I knew from before because they know how I work and I know their character and it’s important to have a healthy dressing room as that plays a big role in this kind of tournament.

It’s important that the atmosphere is positive and being happy where we are and with no difficult egos because there’s no time for that. If you want to win tournaments that are short then you need to have a healthy dressing room with players not starting pushing the first XI and with a good mentality.

How close are you to having decided on your best XI?

Polking: I know I should never say that because opposition coaches might listen to it and I don’t like to give too much information but I’ve had most of my XI in my mind for the past month. In this case it’s been very clear I am almost done, maybe I will have just one or two changes.

The guys performed very well against Myanmar in our recent friendly match, exactly what we trained for. We’re playing Theerathon in midfield and he also does that job for his club the whole year and he has a fantastic understanding with Sarach, they’ve known each other for a long time.

I had one young player I liked with an injury and that’s why he didn’t start recently but he’s an option and then there’s Teerasil, old but gold and still the guy that scores amazing goals.

Are there any potential breakout players that fans should keep an eye on?

Polking: I think Pansa [Hemviboon] will play well in defence and at right-back we have some young players that I really like.

Then there is Ekanit [Panya] and Channarong [Promsrikaew] who have done very well in their clubs and are players who I really like how they play. I believe they can step in now and grab their chance because without Supachok [Sarachat] and Chanathip [Songkrasin] then those positions are open so I expect a lot from those two guys. 

You start against the outsiders Brunei Darussalam, what kind of a challenge are you expecting there?

Polking: I saw both their games against Timor-Leste in the play-off match and I saw a good fighting spirit but for us as the clear favourites in this match it’s still very, very important. We have to start with that three points to get some early confidence.

On paper even if they are the weakest team in the group that means nothing and only the three points are crucial for us, so we are really focussed with the best preparation and the things we can control.

Aside from Thailand, who do you think are the leading contenders to win the AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup?

Polking: I think it has to be Vietnam, not only in terms of their ranking but they have a strong mentality with an experienced coach that fits the way they like to play, being very aggressive and solid defensively.

They can also control everything and if they say we’ll stop the league then they stop the league and if they say I want a player then that player is there the next day; these things are an advantage and they’re together for a month in a nice training centre, with great facilities.

Knowing that the coach Park Hang-seo will leave after this tournament, I believe the players want to give him the trophy so much because they’ve had a good time together so I still believe that they are the main favourites.

Then after that we also saw Malaysia here in a friendly game in the King’s Cup and Indonesia also with the same coach and some young players and also now some top guns, we can say, with some very strong experience at a much higher level. That can help the team who are also a non-stop team that can run like horses all the time.

However, we are focussing on what we can do and I still believe that the league in Thailand is the strongest in the region. That helps our players and is to our advantage, so even though we don’t have all our players we do have hungry players plus the experienced players and I’m excited to start.