Only a win will do when Thailand face Vietnam on Matchday Five of their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Thursday’s limp defeat in Malaysia leaves them in the kind of win-or-bust scenario they would have wanted to avoid against arguably the strongest side in a very evenly matched Group G.
All of the positivity generated by a landmark win over UAE last month evaporated in 90 painful minutes in Kuala Lumpur and head coach Akira Nishino must turn things around very quickly or Thailand can forget about reaching the next stage of qualifying.
Here are three things to look out for when Thailand play Vietnam in Hanoi.
- Focus on the defence
Nishino has failed to rid Thailand of the defensive lapses that may ultimately prove so costly. While there were many issues with the performance against Malaysia, the defending for the two goals was dismal.
Brendan Gan was surrounded by Thai players when he still found enough space to slot home the equaliser. A dreadfully misguided attempt to play the offside trap led to the second, though we shouldn’t ignore the quality of Gan’s pass and Sumareh’s excellent finish.
Photo credit: Changsuek
You can’t help feeling that making three changes to the defence – only one of them necessary – was not helpful. Tanaboon Kesarat’s defending has been understandably criticised but was the Bukit Jalil the right place to throw Elias Dolah in for his first start in place of someone with 50 caps?
More confusing was the decision to play Tristan Do ahead of Nitipong Selanon. Nitipong has been in the form of his life and was outstanding against the UAE. Do, meanwhile, has suffered several injury setbacks over a generally disappointing season. Do’s limited match fitness was sometimes evident on Thursday, though the errors that led to the goals were more the result of a collective failure as a unit rather than individual blunders.
The return of Theerathon Bunmathan at left-back will be most welcome but there are decisions to be made at centre-back and right-back.
- Three’s a crowd
The decision to play three diminutive attacking midfielders looked great on paper on Thursday and it was all going to plan when two of them combined for an early opening goal. Unfortunately, the talented trio of Chanathip Songkrasin, Supachok Sarachat and Ekanit Panya could not keep Malaysia on the back foot and it began to look a misguided tactic.
It is highly unlikely that Nishino will start all three again, with reinforcements in a deeper midfield role more likely. The absence of Thitipan Puangchan is keenly felt but Sasalak Haiprakhon could be a good option for his energy and ability to play in different positions. There is also the option of pushing Tanaboon into the midfield anchor role, freeing Sarach Yooyen to drive forward when possible.
Photo credit: Changsuek
Chanathip is a certain starter but either Supachok or Ekanit is likely to remain on the bench in an attempt to compete more aggressively in midfield.
Having said that, Nishino has surprised everyone several times with his team selections so there may be more unexpected moves on the cards. There are plenty of options in midfield but Nishino must get the balance right against a very strong opponent.
- A chance to restore some pride
Much has changed since the last time Thailand played a competitive fixture in Vietnam. Four years ago, the War Elephants were imperious and saw off their opponents with contemptuous ease. But this came before the dramatic rise of many of Vietnam’s young talents and the hosts will this time go into the match as slight favourites.
Thailand were undoubtedly the top side in Southeast Asia from 2014 to 2018, but the balance of power has shifted in the past 18 months, with the Vietnamese lifting the AFF Suzuki Cup before bettering Thailand’s performance in the 2019 Asian Cup.
Photo credit: Changsuek
The two sides have contested two fiercely competitive matches this year, with just one (freakish) goal scored. Vietnam’s victory in the King’s Cup clash came courtesy of an added time goalkeeping howler but there was little between the teams. Vietnam then came away with the goalless draw they seemed to be playing for when they visited Bangkok in the first World Cup qualifier in September.
Both teams have been guilty of some reckless physical challenges, with lenient refereeing sparing players on both sides more severe punishment. Some of the play acting has also been unedifying to watch, as the bad feeling between the two sides has often come to a head.
If Thailand want to reverse the momentum that Vietnam have built up and reclaim their throne as the best side in the region, they will have to match their opponents’ aggression and ensure they keep their heads in the heat of what may well be another spiteful encounter.