Despite languishing at the bottom of Group D with four points, Thailand's hopes of the section's second qualifying spot behind Australia are still very much alive. A victory away to Oman will be enough to send them through if runners-up Saudi Arabia lose to the Socceroos in the other game.
Having guided his side to a resounding 3-0 home win against the Omanis in the two sides' first-leg meeting, coach Winfried Schafer is hoping his War Elephants emulate the previous feat in Muscat on 29 February as Asia's third qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ goes down to the wire.
"Obviously it is a crucial game for both teams," the 62-year-old German tactician told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "For us it is a must-win but it is also a great chance. So we should enter the match with our best shape and play with a big heart."
Thailand's recent form suggests they have a tough task, with their lacklustre performance in January's King's Cup casting doubts over their chances against the west Asians. Schafer's much-depleted side lost all three games against the likes of a Korea Republic U-23 team, a Denmark League XI and Norway to finish pointless on home soil.
"Injuries cost us dearly during the campaign," the former Cameroon manager was at pains to point out. "We missed as many as five key players, who are the nucleus of our team so we couldn't field a full-strength team.”
The timing of the Oman fixture is also far from ideal, with the Thai Premier League coming to a close only late last month, which will limit Schafer and his side's preparation to less than two weeks. "Approximately we have only 14 days to prepare for the Oman match, a short period during which we must get our players to their peak form heading into the contest. But our opponents have no such worries as their players can sharpen form in the on-going Omani league."
Also adding to their difficulties is a late return by the four Chonburi's players who will feature in the forthcoming 2012 AFC Champions League play-off against Pohang Steelers on 18 February. The quartet, most notably first-choice goalkeeper Sinthaweechai Hathairattankool, won't join Schafer's squad until three days after the match.
But Schafer chose to dismiss such concerns, saying: "This shouldn't be a big problem as long as the players can train well with their club and involve themselves in a competitive game."
Key striking duo
Schaffer remains wary of their fast-improved rivals, who recorded a spirited solitary-goal win over Australia, before holding the Saudis to goalless draw which has seen them lead the Thais by a point. Paul Le Guen's home team can potentially progress with a draw should Saudi Arabia lose.
"Oman have proved themselves by beating Australia,” said Schafer. “They are a good team. To be honest, if we can have all our key players available and enter the game fully-prepared, we have a 50 per cent chance of winning."
Still the Thais can draw inspiration from their previous triumph, which can largely be attributed to their lively attacking line-up in the shape of Sompong Soleb and Teerasil Dangda. The former broke the deadlock on 35 minutes and his strike partner doubled the lead within six minutes, before Rashid Al Farsi put through his own net to gift the hosts three points.
Soleb is under pressure after his recent personal problems while Dangda has been nursing a nagging groin injury. However, Schafer said both have a chance to feature in the Oman decider. “Soleb has to prove himself with his club and if he is fit we will bring him,” he said. “As for Dangda, we will try to get him back to form soon through a special training. We have no other option but to play at our top form to win.”