Kuala Lumpur: Defending champions Thailand will begin their AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup 2022 Group A campaign at Kuala Lumpur Football Stadium on Tuesday when they take on a Brunei Darussalam side making their first appearance in the competition since 1996.

Thailand lifted the AFF Championship trophy for a record-extending sixth time less than a year ago when they defeated Indonesia 6-2 on aggregate in the final of the 2020 edition to add to the titles they won in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2014 and 2016.

A team managed by Brazilian Alexandre Polking and with the star power of Chanathip Songkrasin, who won the MVP award for the third time, proved too good for the rest as they won four from four in the group stage before seeing off defending champions Vietnam in the semi-finals and the Indonesians in the final.

Polking remains at the helm and has spoken of his desire to retain the title but he will have to do so without his best player, Chanathip, while Supachok Sarachat and Supachai Jaided are other notable absentees.

However, Theerathon Bunmathan, who will lead the team in Chanathip’s absence, and the AFF Championship’s all-time top scorer Teerasil Dangda, who moved out in front on 19 goals last time out, ensure there is no shortage of quality in the side.

Elsewhere, midfielder Sarach Yooyen and striker Adisak Kraisorn have been there and done it before in the regional competition and 23-year-old defender Kritsada Kaman was one of the breakout stars of the previous edition.

Having been part of the inaugural AFF Championship back in 1996, meanwhile, Brunei Darussalam confirmed their long-awaited return by defeating Timor-Leste 6-3 on aggregate in the qualification play-off in early November.

Under Spanish head coach Mario Rivera, Brunei won the first leg 6-2 following braces from Azizi Ali Rahman and Muhammad Razimie Ramli and further goals from Azwan Saleh and Wafi Aminuddin before the 1-0 second-leg loss proved inconsequential.

The victory ended the country’s 26-year absence from the competition after they had been part of the 10-team tournament in Singapore in 1996.

Back then, Brunei also faced Thailand, losing 6-0 in a game that saw War Elephants legend Kiatisuk ‘Zico’ Senamuang get on the scoresheet, although the Hornets did pick up a victory in that campaign, defeating the Philippines 1-0 to finish third in the five-team group.

After some near misses in the qualification rounds of previous editions, Brunei are finally back and have shown signs of progress under former East Bengal tactician Rivera, including a friendly victory over Laos prior to the match against the Timorese.

They are now set to go toe-to-toe with Southeast Asia’s finest teams, with Tuesday’s clash with the defending champions coming ahead of games against the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia.