Thailand start crucial double header with tough test against resurgent Malaysia

Thailand’s clash with Malaysia on Thursday is an excellent opportunity to take three points that would significantly strengthen their hopes of proceeding to the final stage of 2022 World Cup qualifying.

Seven points from three matches sees them joint top of Group G, alongside Vietnam. Victory in Malaysia would set them up nicely for a tough game in Vietnam next week.

But the Harimau Malaya have been making significant progress under Tan Cheng Hoe. In addition to a dramatic win in Indonesia, they have suffered narrow defeats at home to UAE and away to Vietnam. This is a stark contrast to their 2018 campaign, which saw humiliating losses against the UAE and Palestine.

Nevertheless, the War Elephants also look a better side than the one that lost to Malaysia on away goals in the semifinal of the AFF Cup last year.

Here are three things to look out for in the Malaysia Vs Thailand match.

  1. What changes to a winning team?

Thailand’s 2-1 victory over UAE on Matchday Three was one of the national side’s finest performances in recent years. There was relentless energy, attacking flair and mental toughness when they quickly recovered from the blow of conceding a completely undeserved equaliser.

Head coach Akira Nishino has some tough decisions to make as he welcomes back some players who missed out through injury last month. Talisman Chanathip Songkrasin did not make the UAE game but was hardly missed as the likes of Ekanit Panya and Supachok Sarachat drove at the UAE defence in the manner of the Consadole Sapporo playmaker.

It would seem harsh to leave out either of the younger players so Nishino might look to accommodate all three, as he did in the 3-0 win in Indonesia in September. This could well mean switching Sasalak Haiprakhon to left-back, with Theerathon Bunmathan suspended.

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Photo credit: Changsuek

There is also a decision to be made at right-back, with Tristan Do back in the fold. Do had won his place back after being out of favour under Milovan Rajevac. However, when the Bangkok United man was nursing an injury last month, Port FC’s Nitipong Selanon gave two excellent performances, first in the friendly against Congo and then in the victory over UAE.

In the centre of defence, Manuel Bihr’s place looks secure but with Pansa Hemviboon fit again and the likes of Elias Dolah pushing for a start, Nishino must decide whether or not to persist with Tanaboon Kesarat.

Changing a winning team is not always a good idea but it seems unthinkable that a fit Chanathip will not start. Otherwise, Nishino may decide to leave things as they were and as far as availability allows.

  1. Stay positive 

The win over the UAE was a demonstration of why Thailand are at their best when their attackers are encouraged to express themselves and put the opposition on the back foot. While it will be difficult in the hostile atmosphere at the Bukit Jalil Stadium, there is no reason why Thailand should go there with a different approach.

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Photo credit: Changsuek

While Japan-based Chanathip, Teerasil Dangda and Theerathon were missing, the Thais performed dismally at the same venue in 2018 and were fortunate to escape with a 0-0 draw. With Ekanit’s emergence and Supachok’s development, along with the return of two of the aforementioned players, Nishino has a much wider range of attacking options at his disposal and should play to the squad’s strengths.

Malaysia will fancy their chances in front of their home fans but, man-for-man, Thailand still have the edge in terms of quality. If Nishino again lets the attackers off the leash, the War Elephants will have a better chance of consolidating their position at the top of Group G.

  1. Thais must stop Safawi 

Malaysia’s squad contains several talented players in their early twenties, which bodes well for the future. The impressive performances of Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in their first participation in the AFC Champions League this year gave many of them the opportunity to play at a higher level and they did not disappoint.

The player Thailand should watch out for most is Safawi Rasid, who was the highest scoring Malaysian in the 2019 Malaysia Super League season. The 22-year-old has a range of skills that make him an extremely dangerous opponent and the Thais will have to ensure they don’t allow him to cut in from the right to unleash a thunderbolt shot with his deadly left foot.

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Photo credit: Football Association of Malaysia

In last week’s friendly against Tajikistan, Safawi’s wonder goal settled the game, just the latest in a growing list of spectacular strikes. He scored one of the best goals of this year’s AFC Champions League when his signature move came off. He cut in from the right and, despite intense pressure from a Shandong Luneng defender, he smashed in a curling shot from 25 yards that landed in the top corner.

Thailand will not be complacent given Malaysia’s recent form and they should also be well aware of the dangers posed by the likes of Syafiq Ahmad and Mohamadou Sumareh. But they should be most concerned about Safawi’s ability to create something from nothing and prepare accordingly.

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