My fourth game in two weeks took me to Gia Lai Province, deep in the Central Highlands. I’d only been to one match in Pleiku before and didn’t expect to be able to visit this hard to get to stadium again. It’s easy if you don’t mind a tiny prop plane but they’re not for me. Instead I woke at 5am on Bai Xep beach, just south of Quy Nhơn, to take a minibus . Between matches I’m working on my tan.
We quickly left behind the stunning beauty of Bình Định province and climbed up into the highlands. The temperature soon dropped and the buildings disappeared. Four hours later I jumped off the still moving bus and instantly found a café. The Highlands are the premium coffee region in Vietnam, and my cravings were soon met.
I stayed at the same hotel, the weird one, but I won’t go into it again, as its sailors featured heavily in my notes on my last trip.
Pleiku Stadium is easily my favourite in all of Vietnam. Joined the whole way round, but not a bowl, the low all seater stands lean over the touchlines; giving a unique experience in a league where running tracks dominate, putting great distance between fans and the action.
There were 8 of us T&T fans, Tuan Anh who travelled from nearby(ish) Buôn Ma Thuột and 6 from Hanoi. We were all pleased to see each other and numerous photos needed to be taken before the game began. It’s nice to see the HAGL fans donate us a drum for the day. One of the older guys quickly taped a T&T flag around it.
The first half was a tense encounter. Thanh Luong and Loris Arnaud looked good for the visitors, while HAGL’s Nguyễn Văn Toàn was causing the T&T defence some problems down the right. Ideguchi, HAGL’s Japanese captain, marshalled his team well, whilst protecting his defence and breaking up T&T attacks.
The second half was not much better. HAGL, as expected from a team facing some of the league’s best attacking players, maintained their compact defensive approach, using the pace of their front three to spring counterattacks.
The tactic paid off when Nguyễn Phong Hồng Duy was sent through. T&T keeper’ Phí Minh Long made a rare misjudgement, racing from his line, Hồng Duy easily skipped passed him and finished from a tight angle. T&T, having failed to create and real clean cut chances all afternoon reverted to normal panic tactics and sent Gonzalo upfront. A crowded frontline now made the impressive Arnaud redundant as he was pushed out wide to seek space. Hanoi attacked continuously but just couldn’t find a breakthrough.
The defeat repeats HAGL’s victory here last season, when once again struggling at the foot of the table they saw off T&T and their fading title ambitions. Not a single team in the league currently has back-to-back wins and you have to go back 3 rounds to find Cần Thơ , sitting 6th, who are the last to record 2 wins in a row. I still harbour hopes of T&T winning the double, and results elsewhere suggest that the title race is far from over.
Next up: Hanoi T&T travel to Quang Nam for the semi-final 1st leg of the National Cup on Wednesday 20th July. But for me it’s a 12 hr bus ride to Pakse in Southern Laos. Not for football but for a visa run to ensure I am back in time for Hanoi T&T’s next home match against SLNA on Sunday 24th July.
Hoàng Anh Gia Lai 1-0 Hà Nội T&T
Nguyễn Phong Hồng Duy (7) 50′
Pleiku stadium: 6,000