Thailand kick off their campaign to defend the AFF Suzuki Cup with what should be their easiest match as they host Timor Leste on Friday.
However, shorn of their four best players, Thailand will not have it easy as they attempt to win their third Southeast Asian title in a row.
Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda, Theerathon Bunmathan and Kawin Thamsatchanan will all be staying with their overseas clubs as most the tournament does not take place on FIFA dates.
Their replacements will have to raise their games to prove that the War Elephants have sufficient strength in depth to emerge from a group also featuring Indonesia, Singapore and Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Philippines before potentially holding off the likes of Vietnam and Malaysia in the later stages.
Here are five things to look out for in Thailand’s AFF Suzuki Cup campaign.
- Thitipan’s drive for glory
Thitipan Puangchan has been a mainstay of the Thailand team since Milovan Rajevac replaced Kiatisuk Senamuang as head coach in May 2017.
The central midfielder may have had a disappointing season at relegated Bangkok Glass but he is likely to be a key player for the national team in the centre of the park.
Thitipan has a bit of everything in his game. He is well-known for his tough tackling and energy but he has no shortage of skill and comes up with the occasional goal.
His leadership could also be vital in the absence of some more established names. If Thitipan can avoid the rashness that occasionally creeps into his tackling, he might be the most important player for the defending champions.
- Adisak’s big opportunity
After an injury-plagued two years, it remains to be seen if Adisak Kraisorn has convinced Rajevac that he is the man to take Teerasil’s place up front.
The 27-year-old Muang Thong United man has been in the national side for many years but last stepped out of Teerasil’s shadow in the 2014 AFF Cup as his teammate stayed in Spain on loan at UD Almeria.
With Thailand producing few goalscorers, Adisak remains the most likely replacement for Teerasil despite concerns over his fitness.
Alternatives seem to be the inexperienced Supachai Jaided and Suphanburi’s Chananan Pombhuppa, who tends to play more as a second striker.
If Adisak gets the nod, all of Thailand will be hoping that he takes his opportunity and scores the goals that lead the War Elephants to glory.
- Siwarak’s a safe pair of hands
There is no doubt that the absence of Kawin is a significant blow. Losing the best goalkeeper in Southeast Asia, and arguably one of the best in Asia, does not help Thailand’s chances.
However, unlike the dearth of alternatives at the other end of the pitch, the War Elephants have some strength in depth in the goalkeeping position. Recently retired Sintaweechai Hathairattanakool was good enough to keep Buriram United keeper Siwarak Tedsungngoen further down in the pecking order for several years.
Photo Credit: Football Association of Thailand
Now Siwarak is likely to be tasked with keeping the ball out of the Thailand net in a year in which he won yet another title for his club and helped them to the last 16 of the AFC Champions League.
Siwarak may not quite be at the same level as Kawin but the 34-year-old is a more than able deputy and Rajevac will be more concerned about replacing the other three foreign-based players than the goalkeeper.
- Filling the creative void
Playmaker Chanathip and set-piece specialist Theerathon have been Thailand’s two key sources of creative play in the last five years.
Players of their calibre cannot be replaced with a like-for-like option so one of Rajevac’s biggest challenges is to set up his team to create chances with the right players in their best positions.
There is certainly creativity in the squad, with attacking midfielder Sumanya Purisai coming off an outstanding season with Bangkok United, Nurul Sriyankem a source of menace supporting the attack and left-wing back Korrakot Wiriyaudomsiri a threat with his excellent delivery from set pieces.
Winger Pakorn Prempak got plenty of assists for Port FC in 2018, while right wing-back Sasalak Haiprakhon may be given the chance to show what he can do on the international stage following an excellent season with Buriram United.
No one would argue that any of these players have the same quality as the men they may replace but if they can make an impact in attack, they may seal a place at the Asian Cup in January.
- Rajevac’s first big test
Thailand’s head coach has quietly gone about his business since replacing Kiatisuk last year and has done well to keep the players and his employers on side given his predecessor was such a hard act to follow.
Now comes the time to deliver as he comes under genuine pressure for results for the first time since his reign began 18 months ago.
The absence of the four overseas stars may be inconvenient but the Football Association of Thailand will still fully expect their man to deliver a third AFF title in a row.
Photo Credit: Football Association of Thailand
Rajevac has the advantage of having been on the biggest stage of all in 2010 when he led Ghana to the World Cup quarter final. If that was an impressive achievement, nothing less than a victory will be seen as a success with Thailand.
He has been favoured by the fact that Thailand have avoided a potentially hazardous trip to Indonesia and, due to Timor Leste’s inability to host, the Thais have three Group B games in Bangkok.
However, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines will provide a stern test, while Singapore and Malaysia appear to be emerging from recent slumps.
If the Serbian can help make it three in a row for Thailand, he will deserve every accolade that comes his way.