After the emotional rollercoaster of Thailand’s 1-1 draw with the UAE, it’s time for a reality check before the War Elephants play their round of 16 tie in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
There was cause for celebration as caretaker boss Sirisak Yodyardthai saw his team dig in for a point against the tournament hosts to finish second in Group A.
It is a great achievement only in the context of the turmoil of Matchday One, which saw a second-half capitulation against India and the subsequent dismissal of head coach Milovan Rajevac.
However, looking at the bigger picture, the reality is that Thailand have merely met expectations by finishing second to UAE in a relatively weak group.
Neither Group A rivals Bahrain nor India progressed to the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying as Thailand did, so for the Thais to maintain their position as one of the better sides in Asia, their place in the last 16 was vital.
Here are three things to consider after Thitipan Puangchan’s scrappy goal secured Thailand’s ticket to a tie against South Korea or China.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- How good is Chanathip?
Thailand’s finest talent of this, and perhaps any other generation, has demonstrated that when the going gets tough, Chanathip Songkrasin gets going.
He was outstanding in the 1-0 victory over Bahrain last week, scoring a fine winning goal into the bargain. Against the UAE, he put in another all-action performance, producing a decisive contribution as his floated ball over the UAE defence led to the equalising goal.
Chanathip’s physical condition is in stark contrast to the player of three or four years ago, who was considered good for 70 minutes and often substituted. The 25-year-old’s energy levels were incredible as he buzzed around the pitch, nicking the ball off opponents, driving forward in all directions and providing some excellent passes.
An exit in the last 16 would mean that this Thailand team did not go as far as was hoped. However, the last two games have proved that Chanathip is not just a skilful playmaker, but also a leader and a ferocious competitor. He has already gone further than most would have expected a few years back.
- Get behind South Korea
Regardless of who they face in the last 16, Thailand will go in as underdogs. Choosing to stick rather than twist in the second half against UAE was an understandable strategy in the context but it also meant that they would have a much tougher last-16 assignment.
However, the War Elephants will surely have a preference for facing an erratic Chinese side over the might of South Korea. To make this happen, South Korea must beat China on Wednesday.
The Koreans have made a slow start to the tournament, picking up 1-0 wins over the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan, while China are also on six points but at the top of Group C on goal difference.
With China’s star man Wu Lei struggling with injury and South Korea having added their top talent Son Heung-min to the squad, it seems clear that Sirisak’s side might have a better chance of reaching the last eight in a tie against Marcello Lippi’s men. Beating China would be a surprise, but beating South Korea would be a monumental shock.
Players and managers will often tell you that they don’t care which team they play in a knockout tournament. However, if Thailand want to go beyond simply meeting expectations, they might be better equipped to see off the challenge of the world’s most populous nation than the country that beat Germany at last year’s World Cup.
Photo credit: @Changsuek
- Give Sirisak the job if he wants it
The outstanding achievements of Peter Withe as Thailand head coach from 1998 to 2003 look all the more impressive in light of recent events.
He remains the only foreign head coach to find the formula to get the best from the Thai national team players and after player power apparently saw off Milovan Rajevac, you wonder if there is any point in trying to recruit from overseas again.
Managing Thai players requires a clear understanding of the cultural mindset but there is much more to the job than that. Behind the scenes, there are multiple internal relationships to maintain and the key is not to upset the wrong people.
You cannot go around breaking eggs to make an omelette – you have to walk on egg shells and hope to keep everyone happy.
Tristan Do told Fox Sports that Rajevac took the fun out of training – interesting comments from someone raised in France – but very representative of the Thai character. There needs to be fun, the atmosphere has to be light and then the players will respond to you.
For that reason, it seems pointless to scour the globe for another Rajevac or Peter Reid or Winfried Schafer. The success of Kiatisuk Senamuang was built on his relationships with the players and in a job in which you have limited time with the players and have to hit the ground running, it might be a lot easier to put faith in someone who does not have a steep learning curve in intercultural understanding ahead of them.
If Sirisak can deal with the various challenges of the job, while maintaining the respect of the players, he might be the best available option.