The big moment has arrived for Thailand as the War Elephants prepare to kick off their first AFC Asian Cup campaign in 12 years when they face Group A rivals India in the UAE on Sunday.
It is almost three years since Thailand’s qualification was confirmed – a 2-2 draw with Iraq sealing their place among the continent’s elite sides.
However, the optimism generated by that team’s attacking flair has long gone, with Milovan Rajevac’s more pragmatic style a stark contrast with former head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang’s expansive but sometimes naïve football.
It is now time for Rajevac to deliver and justify the change in approach, after it failed to pay dividends in the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup. After they face India, Thailand play Bahrain and they will hope to get the points they need in the first two fixtures before the final group game against the hosts.
Here are five things to look out for in Thailand’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup campaign.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- Chanathip’s time to shine
At 25 years old and on the back of a season that saw him named in the J League team of the year, there couldn’t be a better time for Chanathip Songkrasin to make an impact at the tournament.
The playmaker’s all-round game has improved immeasurably since he burst onto the scene as a tricky dribbler with BEC Tero Sasana back in 2012.
Chanathip has worked extremely hard on his physical strength and he has become much tougher to shrug off the ball, despite standing at just 158 cm tall. He has also added goals to his game with Consadole Sapporo, netting eight times in the 2018 league season.
Chanathip’s ability to lead counter attacks was sorely missed in the AFF Suzuki Cup campaign, with this aspect of his game well suited to Rajevac’s tactical approach.
If Thailand are to progress to the last 16 and beyond, they will need Chanathip to be at the top of his game. He has overcome so many challenges in his career to date that you would not bet against him being one of the stars of the tournament.
- Rajevac’s last chance
The aftermath of the AFF Suzuki Cup saw many fingers of blame being pointed at Rajevac, with Kiatisuk’s swashbuckling approach still fresh in the memory.
The absences of Chanathip, Theerathon Bunmathan, Teerasil Dangda and Kawin Thamsatchanan were obviously significant, but the uninspiring performances against Malaysia in the semi-final in particular gave justifiable cause for concern.
Many consider Rajevac too stubborn as he sticks to his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, but there are signs that he might adapt to the different challenges.
For the past 18 months, Rajevac has been working towards this moment and this has seen the unpopular sidelining of several players, including Sarach Yooyen, Charyl Chappuis and Tristan Do.
However, Do has come in from the cold for this tournament, an indication that Rajevac is not too proud to acknowledge a misjudgment and fans will hope that he is not too proud to alter his approach. The Thais need to go in for the kill against India and perhaps be more pragmatic against stronger opponents.
The AFF Suzuki Cup performances also saw Rajevac him drop the inconsistent Nurul Sriyankem, the ineffective Mongkol Tossakrai and the out-of-sorts Philip Roller. Rajevac put a lot of faith in these players but was not too stubborn to acknowledge that his faith had not been rewarded.
If he fails to get it right this time, Rajevac knows that his time with Thailand is up.
- Jeepers, keepers
The foot injury which keeps Kawin out is a huge blow, the OH Leuven goalkeeper having been one of the key reasons why Thailand have come this far. Kawin’s predecessor and subsequent deputy was Sintaweechai Hathairattanakool but his recent decision to retire from international football perhaps came a little too soon as he is still the country’s second-best keeper.
Buriram United’s Siwarak Tedsungnoen was given the jersey on Matchday One of the AFF Suzuki Cup but had to relinquish it after Matchday Two, following an uncertain performance in the 4-2 over Indonesia, including a howler to let in the opposition’s second goal.
Chiang Rai United’s swaggering Chatchai Budprom replaced him and promptly committed an even bigger and more costly error, needlessly scoring an own goal to give the Philippines a point in a 1-1 draw.
Chatchai almost made another catastrophic blunder in the following game against Singapore but Rajevac stuck with him for the semi-final. This time, it was off the pitch that he made his biggest mistake, taunting Malaysia by promising them a ‘nightmare’ before they earned a 2-2 draw in Bangkok to progress on away goals.
It is a real concern that Thailand’s two preferred keepers are error prone and not at their best for the tournament. Chatchai looks like he will be favoured but one more blunder and he could be out.
- Will youth get its chance?
Thailand’s qualification for the tournament was very much down to a youthful squad that Kiatisuk had helped nurture at under-23 level. Many of those players remain, but there are very few young players ready to step up to the same level.
The Thailand team of 2014-2016 was full of players in their early to mid-twenties but the side that has travelled to the UAE has just four players under the age of 25, two of whom (goalkeeper Saranon Anuin and centre-back Suphan Thongsong) are unlikely to see any action.
Buriram striker / attacking midfielder Supachai Jaided is the most promising young player in Thai football and his performances at the AFF Suzuki Cup were among the few bright spots of an otherwise disappointing campaign. The 20-year-old netted three times and will surely either start or feature as a substitute in the group stage in the UAE.
His Buriram team-mate Sasalak Haiprakhon turns 23 on Tuesday. Despite an excellent year at his club, Sasalak barely featured at the AFF Suzuki Cup. However, the fact that he has been retained suggest there may yet be a role to play for him wide on the right.
Thailand must depend very much on their experienced players but it would be good to these youngsters get the opportunity recent form has earned.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- Teerasil’s second chance
In 2007, 19-year-old striker Teerasil Dangda made a brief substitute appearance for Thailand in their Asian Cup opener against Iraq.
He has had to wait 12 years for another opportunity to play in the tournament and is the sole survivor from that Thai squad.
Since then, Teerasil has become one of Thailand’s all-time greats as he closes in on 100 caps. His 42 goals make him third top scorer in the national team’s history and he would love to add to his legend by scoring the goals that will take his country to the later stages of the competition.
Now 30, Teerasil spent 2018 on loan at J League runners up Sanfrecce Hiroshima and, while he failed to make himself a regular starter, he scored a few key goals and proved that he wasn’t out of his depth.
While it is Chanathip’s big chance to make an impact, this may be Teerasil’s second and final chance to demonstrate that he belongs on Asia’s biggest stage.