Thailand’s 0-0 draw in Vietnam has to go down as an opportunity missed as the War Elephants ended the evening third in their Group G 2020 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Last week’s defeat in Malaysia had left the Thais with an uphill task at the home of Southeast Asia’s rising stars but Akira Nishino’s side recovered well after a poor start and should have taken the three points.

Here are five things we saw in Thailand’s draw in Vietnam on Tuesday.

  1. No resolution to Southeast Asia debate

There have been clear shifts in power in Southeast Asian football over the past 18 months but two goalless draws between arguably the two best sides in the region have failed to provide a definitive answer regarding who is now best.

It can certainly be argued that Vietnam’s defence is stronger and again they proved a formidable barrier, protected by some relentless pressing in front of them, particularly in the first hour. However, Thailand showed more ambition and invention in the final third and should probably have been rewarded for their late pressure.

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Photo credit: Changsuek

Malaysia, of course, have entered the debate. Having seen off whipping boys Indonesia twice and beaten Thailand at home, they now have a tough run of fixtures to come in their attempt to prove they can now match their rivals.

It is certainly an exciting period for international football in the region, with the three teams evenly matched. The debate will continue into Matchday Six in March when the battle to reach the next stage intensifies as Malaysia travel to UAE and Thailand host Indonesia.

  1. Theerathon remains vital 

Theerathon Bunmathan has long been one of the best players in the national side and his performance in Vietnam again demonstrated his value to the team. While he was suspended in Malaysia last week, the team lost shape and confidence in the face of an energetic performance from their opponents.

Once Thailand had recovered from a nervous start in Hanoi, it was Theerathon who was instrumental in helping his team settle and ultimately gain control of the match. His probing passes pushed Vietnam back and he started to spend more time in the opposition half, providing much-needed width. Even after he had missed his penalty, he brushed it off and moved on.

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Photo credit: Changsuek

In defence, he combined well with the centre-backs, tucking in and providing cover when necessary, while also making some key challenges. At the end, his lethal left foot almost earned Thailand the breakthrough direction from a corner.

Theerathon now returns to Japan to battle for a J.League title with Yokohama F. Marinos. It would be fitting reward for such a fine player to add a J.League winners medal to the five Thai titles he has won.

  1. Nishino shows stubborn streak

Much has been made of Ekanit Panya’s brilliant breakthrough year for club and country and his winning performance against the UAE ensured he would start against Malaysia last week, despite Chanathip Songkrasin’s return from injury.

But the three-pronged attacking midfield of Chanathip, Ekanit and Supachok Sarachat failed to deliver the goods in Kuala Lumpur and it seemed logical that a change would be made. However, the front six remained the same and the three attacking midfielders struggled to find and make space as Vietnam pressed hard.

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Photo credit: Changsuek

Nishino took a long time to make changes and saw Ekanit and Supachok miss good late chances before replacing them. The head coach seems to have a clear playing philosophy but with Ekanit in particular at such a young age, he might need to show a little more flexibility.

Sasalak Haiprakhon, Bodin Phala and Siwakorn Tiatrakul all sat on the bench as the youngster found it tough. In Nishino’s defence, Thailand did eventually wear down the Vietnamese, but the energy of earlier substitutions may have resulted in an even greater impact.

  1. Quiet night for star playmakers 

If there is a debate about the best team in Southeast Asia, there is also a growing discussion over the identity of the best player in the region. While Theerathon again staked his own claim for that title, Chanathip Songkrasin has probably held the crown for the past three years.

The 26-year-old’s rise to be one of the stars of the J.League has been testament to his quality, while he has also become more influential for the national side.

Vietnam have a rising star of their own in 22-year-old Nguyen Quang Hai, a different kind of playmaker but also one with formidable talents. The match in Hanoi was an opportunity for the heir apparent to prove that he may be ready to make his move for the crown, but the Vietnamese star had a disappointing game and was kept very quiet.

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Photo credit: Changsuek

Chanathip also found himself on the periphery for much of the match and only really started to exert his influence as Vietnam’s energy levels dropped in the final 20 minutes.

While both players have had better nights, Chanathip had more influence on this match. Having starred in the AFC Champions League for Muang Thong United before heading to Consadole Sapporo at the age of 23, the Thai star’s career has had an upward trajectory.

Quang Hai will have to soon escape the limited confines of Hanoi FC if he is to develop in the same way and fulfill his huge potential.

  1. Referee leaves everyone unhappy 

Thailand were just beginning to assert themselves when Omani referee Ahmed Alkaf awarded them a penalty for a light push on Manuel Bihr. It was the kind of challenge that goes unpunished at corners 19 times out of 20, leaving Vietnam understandably aggrieved.

The penalty miss lifted the home side and they thought they were in front a couple of minutes later when Tien Dung headed home from a corner. But the goal was disallowed for Doan Can Hau’s challenge on goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan. Given Kawin’s poorly timed jump, the War Elephants clearly got lucky but it was a foul as the keeper took an elbow to the head.

At this point, Vietnamese fans were sensing a conspiracy and as Phitiwat Sukjithammakul’s foul count rose without being booked, their anger increased.

However, the referee was becoming increasingly erratic and his failure to spot a clear handball from a Theerathon cross was poor. Several fouls by both sides went unpunished, while there were whistles for innocuous challenges.

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Photo credit: Changsuek

The most controversial moment of the second half came when a disgraceful challenge by Trong Hoang on Supachok Sarachat earned just a yellow card when it should clearly have been a red. The Vietnamese star soon followed up on his violent challenge by collapsing theatrically to the turf when Chanathip brushed past him.

While it would not have affected the final outcome, the referee again failed dismally to follow the rules when Trong Hoang – yes, him again – cynically hacked down a breaking Teerasil Dangda in added time. A second yellow was the easies decision of the night but the referee bottled it.

Refereeing standards in Thailand may be poor but they clearly leave much to be desired in other Asian countries.