Whilst most attention in the buildup to the AFF Suzuki Cup is on which nation will lift the trophy in mid-December there’s already been quite a bit of discussion over just which stars are set to shine in the regional showpiece.

The award for the Most Valuable Player (MVP) at the tournament has always been just as keenly contested as the title itself and 2018 promises to be no different.

Thailand’s midfield maestro Chanathip Songkrasin is the only player to have won the award twice in the previous 11 editions but with the Japan-based star unable to compete in the forthcoming tournament the question is just who will step up to be the leading light for their nation?

Against popular belief it’s not always been a player from the winning team that’s claimed the MVP prize with both of the first two editions seeing the losing finalist provide the best player.

That was towering Malaysian captain Zainal Abidin Hassan back in 1996 and Vietnamese midfielder Nguyen Hong Son two years later with pint-sized Indonesian playmaker Firman Utina collecting the award despite the Merah Putih losing the 2010 final to Malaysia.

The award has also bucked several international trends in that it’s historically not been dominated by forwards, with two goalkeepers – Singapore’s Lionel Lewis in 2004 and Vietnam’s Duong Hong Son four years later – as well as a defender (Zainal) all claiming the top gong.

That makes choosing contenders for the upcoming tournament quite a difficult job for the committee tasked with doing so but pre-tournament there are already several players with huge expectations on their shoulders who are tipped to be amongst the main candidates for the MVP prize.

Nguyen Quang Hai (Vietnam)

It seems remarkable at what will be his maiden AFF Suzuki Cup competition - and barely 16 months after making his international debut - that Nguyen Quang Hai is already regarded as one of the leading contenders for the MVP award.

Just 20 years old but already a dazzling talent with reported interest from a host of clubs in Asia and beyond this could well be the stage where the attacking midfielder really confirms his rapidly growing international pedigree.

Nguyen Cong Phuong (Vietnam)

Yet another of this supremely talented generation of Vietnamese stars the versatile midfielder/forward Nguyen Cong Phuong will be tasked with creating much of the attacking output for one of the tournament favourites.

Having featured in four of Vietnam’s five matches in the 2016 edition the 23-year-old already has AFF Suzuki Cup experience and is primed to drive Vietnam towards what would be their second regional title.

Stefano Lilipaly (Indonesia)

Having scored his first international goal for Indonesia at the previous edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup in helping the Merah Putih to reach the semifinals, Lilipaly went on to become one of the breakout stars of the competition.

The Dutch-born midfielder has impressed in the domestic league this season despite missing a period of time as his wife gave birth to their second child but he should be ready to go as Indonesia look to finally claim the main prize after having finished as runners-up on five previous occasions.

Thitipan Puangchan (Thailand)

The hard-working central midfielder has spoken of just how excited he is to be playing in what will be his first AFF Suzuki Cup after injuries have kept him out of the previous two – title-winning – editions and no doubt fans of the War Elephants are just as keen to see him involved.

The 25-year-old has been a star of Thai football for several seasons and in a sign of his character has vowed to remain with his club side, Bangkok Glass, despite the team having been relegated to the second tier of the domestic league for next season.

Before then though he’ll be charged with being the midfield engine in his traditional ‘number eight’ role for one of the tournament heavyweights and with the absence of Thailand’s four foreign-based stars the pressure will be firmly on Thitipan to deliver.

Manny Ott (Philippines)

Regarded by many as genuine contenders to win their first AFF Suzuki Cup title the Azkals midfield is driven by the older of the Ott brothers.

A classy central midfielder with a wide passing range and the ability to dictate the tempo of matches the 26-year-old is now also an experienced international with almost 50 caps to his name and if the Philippines are to succeed at the forthcoming edition the German-born star is likely to have a major say in things.

Safawi Rasid (Malaysia)

Along with Nguyen Quang Hai, Safawi is one of the brightest young stars in Southeast Asian football and much of Malaysia’s likely success could well rest on his shoulders.

A creative playmaker as well as a clinical finisher, the 21-year-old is a genuine threat every time he receives the ball and is sure to have opposing Group A defences marking him closely as he aims to steer the Harimau Malaya to what would be their first title in eight years.

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