Thailand attempt to get their 2019 AFC Asian Cup campaign back on track when they face Bahrain on Thursday, four days after one of the most humiliating results in their history.
The 4-1 defeat to India on Group A’s Matchday One was a shocking surrender and resulted in the dismissal of head coach Milovan Rajevac.
While Rajevac must accept some of the blame for his contribution to a wretched performance, the players also failed dismally to demonstrate the resilience and effort required to pick up vital points.
Unlike Rajevac, the players have a second chance and, under interim coach Sirisak Yodyardthai, they will have to raise their game considerably to earn the victory they realistically need to stay in with a shout of reaching the last 16.
Here are five things Thailand must do to overcome Bahrain.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- Show player power on the pitch, not off it
It has been widely reported that player power contributed to the sacking of Rajevac at a highly unusual time. Disillusionment with the Serbian’s approach apparently began during the recent AFF Suzuki Cup and had festered before coming to a head prior to, possibly during, and after the implosion against India.
Thailand would not be the first team to have a meltdown during a tournament. France players infamously revolted against head coach Raymond Domenech at the 2010 World Cup. Unlike in Thailand, Domenech was backed by the French Football Federation and survived until the end of the competition as Les Bleus crashed out, having taken just one point from three games.
The Football Association of Thailand (FAT) will hope that taking such decisive action with two games left will give the War Elephants a better chance of salvaging something.
The players now owe it to their fans to put up a much better fight than they did against India. They no longer have the ‘excuse’ of a head coach whose instructions they find difficult to execute.
- Learn from Southeast Asian rivals
While Thailand were embarrassing themselves with a meek surrender against an emerging team ranked 97thin the world, their Southeast Asian rivals put up a much better fight against superior teams.
The Philippines showed tremendous focus and commitment as they pushed South Korea all the way before succumbing to a single second-half strike. Vietnam then took the lead twice against Iraq before cruelly conceding in the final minute to a dubiously awarded free kick to lose 3-2.
Thailand brushed Vietnam aside with contempt in a Hanoi World Cup qualifier back in 2015 as the War Elephants showed why they were the undisputed kings of Southeast Asia at the time. They had also eased past the Philippines in the semi-final of the AFF Suzuki Cup one year earlier.
However, while Thailand seem to have been going backwards, their rivals have shown the qualities and determination required to come back stronger. Time to observe and learn.
- Bring back Siwarak
Buriram United goalkeeper Siwarak Tedsungnoen was axed by Rajevac after two games at the AFF Suzuki Cup. In came Chatchai Budprom, whose erratic form has damaged confidence in the Thai defence.
Against India, Chatchai’s positioning for two of the goals was suspect, his distribution was poor and, overall, he made for a very uncertain last line of defence. Bahrain will have noticed this and will be primed to put him under pressure.
While Siwarak did not distinguish himself at the AFF Suzuki Cup, we have now seen several performances from another keeper who is clearly struggling for form.
Number one Kawin Thamsatchanan has been missed more than anyone could have imagined but surely Siwarak – a veteran of several AFC Champions League campaigns and winner of six Thai League titles – is worth another shot ahead of Chatchai.
Photo credit: FA Thailand
- Play players in their positions
While we can only speculate on the ‘advice’ Rajevac might have be getting behind the scenes, it was strange to see striker Adisak Kraisorn lining up on the right wing against India.
It was even more surprising that, with Thailand in urgent need of inspiration, Rajevac took off tiring central midfielder Sanrawat Dechmitr, put on left-back Korrakot Wiriyaudomsiri and pushed left wing-back Theerathon Bunmathan into central midfield.
This happened while central midfielders Tanaboon Kesarat and Pokklaw Anan watched from the bench. Observers felt that Rajevac might then have been losing the plot or throwing in the towel when he replaced playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin with lumbering forward Siroch Chatthong, who proceeded to play in midfield.
One of Sirisak’s first jobs is to find a system that plays to the strengths of the players he has at his disposal and he should not fall into the trap of finding a spot for one of the better players, only to play him out of position. If Adisak starts, start him up front alongside Teerasil Dangda and keep Theerathon on the left where he causes most damage.
We could see the return of three at the back, with Mika Chunuonsee and Adisorn Promrak both more than capable of slotting in alongside Pansa Hemviboon and Chalermpong Kerdkaew.
However Sirisak chooses to set up, it is vital that the players can adapt and get a much-needed three points.
- Toughen up
Strength in adversity is a real show of character and this Thailand side has a big opportunity to show what they are really made of. They failed to recover from the psychological blow of losing at the start of the second half to India after ending the first half the stronger team.
It was a similar, if less spectacular, story when the Thais took the lead for a second time against Malaysia in last month’s AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final, second leg. From a strong position, they conceded again and seemed unable to muster the mental strength required to come back for a second time.
Thai players have long been admired for their technical ability but mental strength has been tougher to acquire. The laid-back attitude of the Thai people may be an endearing trait in some contexts but it does not suit the world of competitive sport.
Time to leave behind the attitude that a defeat is no big deal and remember that opportunities to make history don’t come around very often. The players will either be remembered as heroes or flops.