One game into the 2019 AFC Asian Cup campaign and Thailand have suffered humiliation on and off the pitch, with a 4-1 defeat to India followed by the sacking of head coach Milovan Rajevac.
Incredibly, it all looked good after 45 minutes of Sunday’s Group A clash, with the War Elephants having had the better of the first half and the score at 1-1.
It looked as if Rajevac’s attacking formation was being vindicated, with Chanathip Songkrasin and Thitipan Puangchan bossing the midfield and Sanrawat Dechmitr becoming more influential.
However, the wheels came off spectacularly in the second half as the Indians punished Thailand’s lackadaisical performance and came up with three fine goals.
Here are five of the key moments that led to Rajevac’s sacking.
- Failure in the AFF Suzuki Cup
Some Thai fans almost consider the AFF Suzuki Cup trophy as their property to lose, with dominance in Southeast Asia the minimum expectation for their country. The trophy had gone missing for 12 long years until local hero Kiatisuk Senamuang rode to the rescue and led his nation to glory in 2014 and 2016.
Rajevac may have been missing the country’s four best players in goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan and J League-based trio Chanathip, Theerathon Bunmathan and Teerasil Dangda, but the two-time defending champions still entered the 2018 tournament as many people’s favourites.
Performances were inconsistent in the early stages but the Thais still topped their group and progressed to the semi-finals. Alarm bells started ringing in the first leg of the semi-final as Thailand were comprehensively outplayed in Malaysia but managed to hang on for a 0-0 draw.
The stage seemed set for a victory in Bangkok to take the favourites through but Malaysia had other ideas and dug in for a 2-2 draw to progress on away goals, with Adisak Kraisorn’s added-time penalty miss sealing the home side’s fate.
- Kawin’s injury
The four overseas-based players were welcomed back into the Thai squad with relief, following the disappointment at the AFF Cup. Some fans were calling for Rajevac’s head, frustrated at his defensive tactics and embarrassed by the perceived humiliation of drawing twice with Malaysia.
Nevertheless, it was reasonable to expect that you couldn’t judge Rajevac without Thailand’s top players.
Unfortunately, it emerged that Kawin was struggling with a foot injury and his place in the UAE was in doubt. Having seen both Chatchai Budprom and Siwarak Tedsungnoen struggle for form at the AFF Cup, this was the last thing Rajevac needed and worst fears were confirmed when Kawin failed to recover in time.
Thailand would enter the tournament without its undisputed Number One and with two keepers who looked short of confidence. You could make a fair case for suggesting that Kawin might have instilled more stability at the back and maybe made a better attempt at preventing the second and fourth Indian goals, with Chatchai’s positioning and reactions unconvincing.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- Reffing hell
When a team has played as badly as Thailand did in Sunday’s second half, refereeing errors are often overlooked. But, make no mistake, two pivotal decisions went the way of India and led directly and more indirectly to their first two goals.
Thailand were beginning to get the upper hand when India were gifted a penalty after the ball ricocheted off Theerathon Bunmathan’s hand. Once again, the rules on handball left everyone baffled as it was clear that the contact with the hand was unavoidable.
The Thais fought back quickly and levelled through Teerasil and all looked good at the break.
Then came refereeing error number two. In the first minute of the second half, Chanathip was crudely pushed to the ground as he was shielding the ball near the touchline deep in the Indian half.
The referee waved play on and the Thais were caught napping as the Indians powered forward, the counter attack ending with Sunil Chhetri firing high past Chatchai from the edge of the box.
Consider the possibility that Thailand had rightly been awarded a free kick and Theerathon had had the opportunity to float one of his set pieces into the box and who knows?
- Mental breakdown
It’s tough on a head coach when players fail to perform the basics but that’s exactly what happened once the referee had failed to award a free kick for the foul on Chanathip.
The Thais were caught on the hop and failed to react quickly enough to the danger as India broke at pace. The midfielders were particularly culpable as 34-year-old Chhetri was allowed to run unhindered from midway inside his own half before smacking the ball home.
Thereafter, the shell-shocked Thailand team simply failed to respond in the face of aggressive Indian pressing. They couldn’t string passes together and get themselves back in the game.
Rajevac also failed to respond quickly enough when it was clear that his side was losing the battle in midfield. There were options on the bench in Pokklaw Anan and Tanaboon Kesarat, as Adisak Kraisorn and Supachai Jaided struggled to make an impact out wide.
When Rajevac did respond, it was to push Theerathon out of position into centre midfield and introduce Korrakot Wiriyaudomsiri at left-back.
But the game had already been lost at this stage and at no point in the second half did Thailand looked like staging a second comeback. Fans on social media bemoaned Thailand’s soft centre and mental weakness. How much of that can the head coach control?
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- The Thai Heskey for the Thai Messi
It brought back memories of Graham Taylor’s infamous decision to replace Gary Lineker with Alan Smith with England needing a goal to beat Sweden at the 1992 European Championship.
In Taylor’s defence, Lineker was past his peak and looking unlikely to score, though logic suggests you need to keep such a predator on the park in times of need.
Unlike Lineker, Chanathip – Messi Jay – has recently been at the peak of his powers. After a strong first half, he got lost in the general Thai malaise in the second half. However, with a minimum of two goals required, you would think you would keep your best creative player on the park.
Not Rajevac. He decided to replace the playmaker with the muscular presence of ‘striker’ Siroch Chattong – a man who has recently been out of favour for both club and country and whose lack of goals has seen him dubbed the ‘Thai Heskey’.
It almost appeared that Rajevac was throwing in the towel at that point and, having had the sword of Damocles hanging over him since the AFF Suzuki Cup, decided that he would rather see it fall than continue.