Singapore legend Baihakki Khaizan is hopeful that the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup can mark a new beginning for the Lions after a difficult few years.

Baihakki is preparing for his eighth participation in the competition and the centre-back’s three winners medals tell of better times.

But since the 34-year-old netted the decisive goal in a 3-2 aggregate win over Thailand in the 2012 final, his country has failed to get beyond the group stage of the last two editions.

After a year playing in Thailand at Udon Thani FC, Baihakki is determined to help Singapore regain their position among the best in Southeast Asia.

How does it feel for Singapore to come into the AFF Suzuki Cup as underdogs in a group alongside Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines?

Football in Singapore is not what it was in the past. There are some changes going on and obviously the league is also not what it was before.

Right now, we have a new national team coach and with the rebranding of the league, everything seems new. I think there is a new direction and we are just following the plan.

In the past two AFF Suzuki Cups, we have not had great results but obviously this time around it’s a brand new tournament. I believe that everybody is ready for it and let’s take it one game at a time.

After going through 2017 without a win, how has the mood changed as a result of the recent friendly matches and the win against Fiji?

It was a new year so we tried to forget the past and move forward and see if we could progress from where we were.

We had a good start to the year beating the Maldives and we have just played two friendly games against Mauritius and Fiji under the new national coach.

There is a lot of positivity in this new team and we are looking to shape it going into the tournament. We have a trip to Japan to prepare ourselves and it feels like we are starting over again.

What are your impressions of new head coach Fandi Ahmad?

Coach Fandi is no stranger on the local scene. He is one of our footballing icons in Singapore. Now being a coach, there’s a lot of pressure and with social media everyone can voice their opinions, especially after the recent years of disappointments.

He is taking it positively right now and the country is behind him. A lot of fans are starting to show belief in him and to give him their support.

The players have been responding pretty well and every one of us is raring to go. There is a pool of 40 to 50 players now on a list and I’m pretty sure that everyone wants a spot on the team.

What do you hope to gain from the friendlies in October against Mongolia and Cambodia?

Obviously, we have to see progression from the past two games. I believe these games are not just about results but about seeing our progress as a team and whether or not we are working towards the coach’s plans.

Of course, results matter as well, particularly with the changes to the FIFA rankings points system. Together, we hope to take Singapore back to where we are supposed to be.

How has your year in the Thai League helped your game and has it given you a better view of Group B opponents Thailand?

I have enjoyed my year in the Thai League but, talking about Thailand, they have been the powerhouse for the past 10 years. They have always been the best team in Southeast Asia.

They are superior technically and tactically and we can see that Thai players are now starting to go abroad to Japan while we Singaporeans are coming into Thailand. That obviously shows the different paths of progression.

Some teammates are also in Malaysia right now and this year we have many players playing abroad – about 10 or 11 of us. I really hope that we can do something when we get together and bring all this knowledge from where we were playing.

As for the Thai League, I have been really impressed. It has been an exciting year and I have learned a lot from Thai football. I have been looking at the players week-in and week-out and it gives you a picture of how to play against them.

What do you think of the new home and away group format in the AFF Suzuki Cup and is it a disadvantage to play Group favourites Thailand away in the final match?

I think the new format gives all countries a fairer chance unlike the previous editions where one country was host. Every team now has a 50-50 chance and all teams will try and make use of their home advantage to get some points.

We play Indonesia at home in the first game and Thailand away in the last game and that’s how it is. You need to make use of the home ground advantage and get maximum points and then try to take something away from home.

Which teams do you think can go all the way and win the trophy this year?

My prediction has always been Thailand and that Thailand will be in the final. That’s the norm and that’s the typical thinking of all the countries in the region – automatically we think of Thailand.

But we can’t rule out teams like Vietnam and Malaysia. They have good U23 sides which have performed well in a series of competitions at the Asian level. I think it’s going to be a good tournament and I’m really looking forward to it.

Since winning the tournament in 2012, Singapore haven’t reached the semi-finals. What is a realistic target this year?

I have confidence in my team and I like being optimistic. Reaching the semi-finals is the first goal right now. Usually, when we have got into the semis in the past, we have won the tournament, so hopefully we will get past that stage.

What are your best personal memories of the AFF Suzuki Cup?

Scoring against Thailand in the final [in 2012]. I enjoyed all the victories that we had before but a special one was to score against Thailand and to hold them off as much as we could in the second leg. I hope it can happen again.