The Thais are the lowest ranked team in Group B, but any Southeast Asian football fan worth his salt will tell you to underestimate them at your own risk. Despite their FIFA world ranking of 165, the War Elephants are always a fearsome force to be reckoned with at this level.
Arguably the biggest fillip for the Thai team ahead of the tournament was the news that Thai football legend, Kiatisak “Zico” Senamuang had been persuaded to take on the national team job full time. That despite Thailand’s most capped player and all time highest scorer repeatedly stating that he wanted to take a break from the game.
He’s won the tournament three times as a player and that has given him the necessary clout to dispense with the services of experienced players like keeper Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakool and Datsakorn Thonglao. Instead he takes an incredibly youthful squad to this tournament. It’s a side that he knows well, having moulded them into an impressive attacking force that tasted success at last year’s SEA Games and finished a creditable fourth at the recent Asian Games.
In many ways Thailand’s success in this tournament is tied to that of their coach. They won three of the first four editions of the Cup in 1996, 2000 and 2002, all with Zico as an influential member of the team—captaining the 2002 side and scoring the winner in the 1996 final against Indonesia.
But it’s been a barren time since then, despite them reaching the final in three of the last four tournaments. Last time out, a lackluster showing in the first leg away against Singapore left them with too much to do, despite winning the return fixture.
Zico’s involvement in a tournament where he has already tasted success has lifted the hopes of fans of the War Elephants that they can finally end 12 years of hurt.
After complaining about a lack of time to prepare for the tournament Zico sensibly opted for the young squad he knows well from his previous role with the FA. At Under 23 level the former striker has tended to opt for a very attacking 4-3-3 formation that focuses on breaking quickly and looking to exploit the pace of his midfielders and movement of a front three.
He’s reaped the benefits with some high scoring wins on the way to the semi-finals of the Asian Games, as his team overpowered the opposition with their direct play and quick passing.
Yet there has been some criticism of this cavalier approach at home. The willingness of his youthful midfield unit to get forward and support the strikers can see them lose their shape and potentially leave them badly exposed at the back, especially when up against more savvy opposition.
Yet with Thailand’s strengths clearly lying in the dynamism of a midfield prompted by the twinkle toes of Chanathip Songkrasin, you can’t see their coach reverting to more negative tactics.
In midfield, Zico has given Chonburi’s Adul Lasoh the captain’s armband and will be hoping that the 28 year old defensive midfielder, one of the squad’s most senior players with 25 caps, can help marshal a young and talented group that have some serious potential.
Inventive, skilful and full of running, if the likes of Kroekrit Thaweekarn, Sarach Yooyen and Charyl Chappuis can find their form they’ll also be nigh on impossible to stop.
With a country so well known for the ability of their FA to put their foot in it, the current mood of optimism and togetherness around this squad cannot be underestimated. Most of these players were involved in winning the SEA Games last year and there seems a real belief among the team that they can taste success at senior level.
Like many of the leading teams the biggest concerns for Thailand seem to be at the back. While they have pace they do lack a little physicality, especially from set pieces and crosses. They also have a tendency to lose their shape, especially when the full backs go charging up field.
Perversely for a team currently on such a free scoring run they may actually find themselves a little short of experience upfront. Talismanic striker Teerasil Dangda is stuck kicking his heels at Spanish club Almeira, while the talented Chayanan Pombuppha misses the tournament after injuring himself during a goal celebration. Neither of the senior strikers Kirati Keawsombut or Sompong Soleb have had particularly prolific seasons for their clubs which leaves the onus firmly on 23-year old Adisak Kraisorn to lead the line.
While the impetuosity of youth can be a blessing it can also be a curse. This team has an average age of just 24 and while many already have big game experience with their domestic clubs none of them will have played with such pressure on their young shoulders.
Kawin Thammasatchanan – Despite only being 24 he’s already racked up 28 caps for the national side and has over 100 appearances for Muangthong United. The imposing keeper was unlucky to miss out on a trial with Manchester United when he broke a finger in training and is tipped by many to follow Teerasil Dangda’s footsteps and start plying his trade in an overseas league sooner, rather than later.
Charyl Chappuis – The young Thai/Swiss midfielder Charyl Chappuis had some limited playing time in the Swiss League, before making the move to the TPL and is one of those who sparkled at the Asian Games. His willingness to get forward and his powerful long range shooting have seen the 22-year old’s stock rise significantly since Incheon.
Chanathip Songkrasin – Dubbed Messi Jay by Thai supporters due to his small stature and quick feet, Chanathip is still only 21 but has already been capped 20 times for the national side. After a good league season, and another impressive showing at the Asian Games he seems sure to be a Thailand’s main attacking threat. Confident in front of goal and with the ability to play a killer pass he usually has a licence to roam, making him hard to keep quiet.
Adisak Kraisorn – Picking the young man who scored 5 goals at the Asian Games seems a little perverse, yet the Buriram United striker didn’t get too much playing time this season, usually playing second fiddle to the TPL Champions’ expensive imports. There’s no doubting he has an instinctive eye for goal and gets into some great scoring positions but he can also be wasteful, a potentially crucial issue when it comes to the tight knockout stages.
How to beat them
Thailand looked impressive in the Asian Games until they came up against the guile and aggression of a Korean team who targeted their lack of true physicality in the heart of midfield. Get in their faces and give them no time or space and they can struggle.
This is a team that like to hit the opposition on the break, so sitting deep and letting them come onto you could pay dividends. Their tendency to over commit players forward does leave them dangerously exposed to quick counter attacks.
Most of the goals Thailand conceded at the Asian Games were from set pieces and crosses. Putting good quality balls into the box can have their back line looking distinctly shaky and is an area that definitely needs to be exploited by their opponents.