Thailand can keep their Olympic dream alive with victory over Saudi Arabia in Saturday’s 2020 AFCU23 Championship quarter-final.
The young War Elephants took the necessary point in a grueling match with Iraq on Tuesday and now look to add another chapter to what has been a thrilling campaign.
Despite being tournament hosts, the Thais will certainly be underdogs at the Thamassat Stadium and head coach Akira Nishino will have to use all of his experience to formulate a successful game plan.
Here are three things to look out for when Thailand play the Saudis.
- Choosing from six of the best
Thailand’s attacking flair has sometimes been a joy to watch in this tournament. Matchday One saw Bahrain repeatedly torn apart by combinations between Supachok Sarachat, Suphanat Mueanta and Supachai Jaided. Anon Amornlerdsak has had his moments, including a goal against Australia, while the depth in attack was highlighted by the strong performances of Ben Davis and Jaroensak Wonggorn against Iraq.
While Nishino has become known for taking risks and springing surprises, it seems highly unlikely that he will start all six of his finest talents given their attacking instincts. The former Japan boss does favour a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a double pivot in midfield, which realistically suggests that he will select four from six if they are fully fit.
Three of those who started the first two matches seem likely to be first choices. Supachok looks a certainty, while Suphanat’s skill set and goal threat surely make him indispensable. Supachai’s physicality may be enough to justify his selection, but this leaves one more place up for grabs.
Photo credit: Changsuek
Jaroensak is surely the front runner given the energy and width that he provides, the three goals he has scored, and the nerves of steel he showed to take the crucial penalty against Iraq.
It would be particularly harsh on Davis to be left out after his impressive debut on Tuesday. He offered composure on the ball, drew seven fouls in under an hour and showed some real quality with his passing.
It is a welcome problem for Nishino and only unavailability through injury can ease the selection headache. There are apparent doubts over Supachai but hopefully he will have all six to choose from.
- A need for cool heads
The euphoria of reaching the quarter-finals will hopefully have given way to a steely focus on getting to the last four. Thailand have nothing to lose as underdogs and the Saudis will be wary of a side that has shown much attacking threat.
There were signs that the young War Elephants were improving their game management against Iraq as they were more inclined to rotate the ball and keep possession rather than go for the second goal. However, there was still a tendency to rush the pass, particularly in the final third, and this invariably resulted in handing the ball back to the Iraqis.
Photo credit: Changsuek
Composure in possession will be key as will the need to guard against gamesmanship. Some of the Saudi players are not slow to go to ground and exaggerate contact and, with the poor standard of refereeing we have seen in this tournament, some unfair decisions are to be expected. In the heat of battle, the Thais will have to avoid the kind of reckless lunges that will give the VAR team a reason to justify their existence, and a card-happy referee an excuse to brandish an unjustified red.
With the stakes high, the competitive edge increases and Thailand will have to be prepared to rise to the challenge if they want to be talked about in 20 years rather than just a team that did pretty well.
- Forget about Olympics (for now)
When Nishino made seven changes to the starting lineup for the decisive match against Iraq, it looked eccentric to say the least. Apart from the second-half slump against Australia, Thailand had acquitted themselves well. Changes were needed to freshen up the team, but so many changes seemed excessive.
But the end justified the means and Nishino made some well-timed substitutions to keep the energy levels high.
Photo credit: Changsuek
It may have been that Nishino was resting many of his top players with one eye on the quarter-finals. Given that taking a point from Iraq was not going to be easy, this was a huge gamble, but it paid off as the players drafted in gave a committed performance.
On Saturday, there is no point in looking further than a match they need to win and this means the strongest available lineup, with no players rested for a possible semifinal. Thailand can start legitimately dreaming of an Olympic adventure if they can get past what will be a very tough opponent.