Nishino’s Thailand face early test of credentials on road to Qatar

Thailand must make home advantage count as they host the UAE in Tuesday’s 2020 FIFA World Cup qualifier.

In what is likely to be an extremely tight Group G, success in the home fixtures may be key. Having dropped two points to Vietnam in last month’s clash in Bangkok, there is no margin for error against the group favourites if the Thais want to progress to the final stage of qualifying for just the third time in their history.

Without star playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin and midfield dynamo Thitiphan Puangchan, the War Elephants are missing two of their most influential players. Head coach Akira Nishino must get the balance right if Thailand are to emerge from this match in a strong position to qualify.

Here are three things to look out for in Tuesday’s Thailand Vs UAE fixture.

  1. Start for Suphanat?

 It would be a brave but positive move if Nishino were to give 17-year-old Suphanat Mueanta a start in attack alongside Teerasil Dangda.

Thailand have struggled to score goals this year, netting just seven times in 11 matches – three of those coming against a poor Indonesia side. Teerasil did miss several of those games through injury but playing the veteran up front on his own is a predictable move that the UAE will be ready for.

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Photo credit: @Changsuek

Suphanat’s movement and trickery would provide a very different option, as Congo found out when he tormented them in the second half of Thursday’s friendly. The Buriram United striker has consistently risen to the big occasion despite his tender years, including becoming the youngest ever scorer in the AFC Champions League when he was still 16.

This is a high stakes fixture and maybe a gamble is necessary to secure the three points that would put the Thais in a strong position.

  1. Dealing with Ali and Omar 

Without Omar Abdulrahman at this year’s Asian Cup, the UAE looked a distinctly average side. Thailand held them to a 1-1 draw when they played them in that tournament, and the countries also drew in Bangkok when they met in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

But Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout took the Thais apart when they met in 2016 and these will be the two players that the Thailand defence will have to stop.

In the UAE’s 5-0 victory over Indonesia on Thursday, Mabkhout struck a hat-trick to become the country’s all-time leading scorer. At 29 years old, the Al Jazira striker is at the peak of his powers and his deadly finishing prowess means he must be very carefully tracked.

Mabkhout scored three times in the two 2018 qualifiers against the Thais, striking twice in the UAE’s 3-1 home win and netting in added-time in Bangkok to deny Thailand what would have been their only victory of the final stage of qualifying. The War Elephants’ nemesis scored against them once again in this year’s Asian Cup.

2016 Asian Player of the Year Abdulrahman has yet to hit full fitness following the injury that kept him out of the Asian Cup and he started Thursday’s match on the bench. But the playmaker’s magical skills can cut open a defence at any moment and, if he starts, Thailand will have to try and limit his space to cut off the supply to Mabkhout.

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Photo credit: @Changsuek

Thailand’s central defence will certainly be tested and this is an area of continued uncertainty. Defensive midfielder Tanaboon Kesarat was used at centre-back against Congo but his positional sense and concentration are often suspect. Manuel Bihr is the one player who looks certain to start, with Pansa Hemviboon, Adisorn Promrak and Elias Dolah the other options.

Whoever is selected will have their work cut out against two players who have a history of putting Thailand to the sword.

  1. A test of self-belief

Thailand’s recent history in matches of this nature does not instill confidence. Facing countries with significantly higher FIFA rankings in important matches do not usually end in victory. The draw with the UAE at the Asian Cup was crucial for Thailand but made little difference to a UAE team that had already qualified for the last 16.

Even though the Thais topped a group that included Iraq in the first group stage of the 2018 qualifiers, they were outplayed for an hour in Bangkok before a late comeback earned a 2-2 draw.

The two times that Thailand have made it past this stage, they have flopped spectacularly against superior opponents, failing to win any of the 18 matches in the final round of AFC qualification.

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Photo credit: @Changsuek

There seems to be an inferiority complex when the Thais take on Asia’s better sides and much of it seems to come down to mentality. They just don’t expect to win games like this and the number of late goals they concede underlines their fragility.

The Round of 16 clash against China in the Asian Cup was a fine example. Leading 1-0 at half-time, the Thais looked well set to reach the quarter-finals, but lost their discipline and ultimately the game as confidence deserted them.

One of Nishino’s biggest challenges will be to transform this state of mind to help Thailand finally look as if they may belong among Asia’s Top 12 teams. A victory in this match would be a huge statement. 

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