Having reached the pre-tournament target of a place in the last 16, Thailand now try to surpass expectations by beating China to reach the quarter-finals of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
A tough challenge awaits against the world’s most populous country, but the War Elephants have momentum on their side, having taken four points from six after the opening day calamity against India.
Meanwhile, Marcello Lippi’s side have not been particularly impressive and were soundly beaten by South Korea on Matchday Three.
Here are five things to look out for when Thailand face China on Sunday.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- Defensive decisions
Thailand’s central defence has chopped and changed due to form, suspensions and injury since the team arrived in the UAE and it will be all change again when the game kicks off.
Pansa Hemviboon and Chalermpong Kerdkaew began the India game as a pairing but, after the 4-1 thrashing and firing of head coach Milovan Rajevac, interim boss Sirisak Yodyardthai adopted a three-man central defence against Bahrain, dropping Chalermpong and bringing in Suphan Thongsong and Adisorn Promrak.
Mika Chunuonsee then replaced the suspended Pansa for the UAE match but promptly got injured after a clash of heads, with Chalermpong coming back in as a substitute.
Now, Sirisak has to deal with the suspensions of Suphan and Adisorn, though Pansa is available again and Mika may be fit enough to start.
There has been much talk of putting central midfielder Tanaboon Kesarat back into defence – a move that will not be met with widespread approval from those who remember some of his displays in that position when Kiatisuk Senamuang was head coach.
Sirisak will certainly want to stick with a back three but selection is going to be tough. Chalermpong has perhaps paid the price for being considered ‘Rajevac’s man’ and has suddenly found himself out of favour. Mika will do his best to be ready but time is against him, while Tanaboon has struggled in the position before. It seems certain to be Pansa + two – not ideal for such a big match.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- Thitipan’s drive
While Chanathip Songkrasin has taken most of the plaudits for his outstanding performances in Thailand’s last two matches, Thitipan Puangchan has also been a key player with his all-action performances from the centre of midfield.
The 25-year-old secured a loan deal with J League side Oita Trinita this week and he will again be out to prove why when he takes to the field.
Thitipan is no stranger to proving himself, having been let go by Muang Thong United in 2016 at a time when they were hoovering up the best Thai talents in sight. However, rather than letting it get him down, Thitipan has knuckled down and become a better player, and he will now join Chanathip and Theerathon Bunmathan in Japan as a result.
Before he can think about packing his bags for Kyushu Island, however, he must do his best to help the War Elephants upset the odds by giving another energetic performance at the heart of midfield.
Before the tournament, Thitipan said it would be a dream to meet Japan in the final. That dream can no longer become a reality, with both sides having ended up on the same side of the draw. But a semi-final against the Samurai Blue would surely be a very satisfactory consolation.
- Will Teerasil be a lone star?
Teerasil Dangda has become used to playing as Thailand’s lone striker over the past few years, so the company of Adisak Kraisorn in the last two games must have been unfamiliar.
So unfamiliar has it been that neither player looks completely comfortable with the arrangement. Adisak has been pulling wide and dropping deep, while Teerasil remains the key target in attack.
It may be worth a rethink for the game against China, in which more guile will be required to create as well as finish chances.
Adisak has yet to find the net in the tournament, making it four consecutive starts without a goal since his early scoring glut at the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup.
The powerful Supachai Jaided or the creative Sumanya Purisai could be good alternatives, with Adisak a useful option to have from the bench if a goal is needed.
The key is that they complement the roaming role of Chanathip, and Adisak’s limited mobility has perhaps not provided the best outlet to keep possession or finish chances.
- Don’t settle for satisfactory
Thailand’s current report card for the tournament reads SATISFACTORY. The target was always to reach the Round of 16 at least and they have achieved that. Anything less would have been a failure.
In the circumstances, the achievement seems more impressive but the clean-up operation after the Indian catastrophe was the least the fans deserved, with the players having to take their share of the blame for an abject second-half performance on Matchday One.
Now this Thai side has the opportunity to reach true legendary status by going into the last eight and really proving that they belong among Asia’s elite. The mentality on the pitch has to reflect the desire to overcome the odds and return home as legitimate heroes.
The players know that a warm welcome awaits them at home regardless of this result. However, it would be great to see the players giving absolutely everything and earning the respect of the continent by eliminating Lippi’s men.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- David Vs Goliath – Sirisak Vs Lippi
Less than two weeks ago, most people outside Thailand (and many within) had no idea who Sirisak Yodyardthai was. They may have seen him on the Thailand bench in his role as Rajevac’s assistant, but he was not a high-profile figure.
Many more people knew his assistant Choketawee Promrut, who enjoyed a successful playing career and led the Thailand U23 side to SEA Games gold in 2015.
But it is very much Sirisak who is now in the limelight as he prepares to face a true giant of the global game in Lippi. China’s head coach has won the World Cup with Italy, the UEFA Champions League with Juventus and the AFC Champions League with Guangzhou Evergrande.
In contrast, Sirisak’s most notable achievement has been earning promotion to the Thai League’s top tier with Thai Honda.
A story has emerged this week that Sirisak’s salary is a mere $20,000, a tiny fraction of what Lippi earns. Even if that particular figure is inaccurate, the actual amount will still be a tiny fraction.
It is an intriguing match-up and if Sirisak’s side emerges triumphant, he will complete his journey from relative anonymity to one of the best-known faces in Thailand in the space of a fortnight.