AFC Asian Cup

War Elephants marching onwards under new leadership 

© AFP
  • Thailand sealed progression in unexpected fashion
  • They are into the knockout stages for just the second time
  • Progression came despite poor start and coaching change

The 2019 AFC Asian Cup has already seen a series of unexpected results, such as Jordan's solitary-goal victory over Australia and Qatar's 6-0 demolition of Korea DPR. But when it comes to singling out the team that has raised most eyebrows, Thailand would be a strong contender.

The War Elephants enjoyed, and endured, a rocky road through the group stage, overcoming a shock opening-match defeat to progress with two excellent results. The outcome is that they have advanced to the Asian Cup’s knockout phase for the first time since 1972, when they finished in third place as hosts.

Bouncing back in style

When Thailand, under Serbian Milovan Rajevac, lined up against India in the opener, expectations were that they should at the very least come away with a point. They had, after all, qualified for the Asian Cups five times in a row between 1992 and 2007, while India's last appearance at the continental showpiece came in 2011.

What followed, however, was a rude awakening as the Indians won 4-1, a devastating result which led to the sacking of Rajevac. Despite the disappointment, they were neither out nor down. After all, this was a team which reached Asian's final qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup™ where they rubbed shoulders with Asia's best.

Under interim coach Sirisak Yodyardthai, five changes were made to the starting line-up and the team reverted to the counter-attacking strategy with which they are most familiar. They duly emerged a different team against Bahrain. Chanathip Songkrasin scored the only goal as Thailand recorded their first win to keep their hopes alive.

That form continued against hosts United Arab Emirates, with a 1-1 draw enough to take them through as group runners-up. It capped a remarkable turnaround, and left Yodyardthai to reflect with justifiable pride on a job well done. "After the defeat against India, things needed to change," he said. "We added determination and motivation to the team and in the last two games I could see the players were determined to do better and get a positive result. I’m very proud and very happy and so grateful that we have made history for the Thai national team."

Recent progress

While their showings have caused some surprise, those following their development closely are well aware that the Thais have been moving in the right direction for some time.

Improved Asian showings
Long known as regional powerhouses in Southeast Asia, Thailand have won the AFF Championship a record five times. But they have struggled in recent decades to make an impact on the continental stage, continuously falling at the first hurdle at the Asian Cup, including crashing out as co-hosts in 2007. But the War Elephants showed positive signs in another Asian competition: the qualifiers for Russia 2018. They twice drew against Iraq to reach the last 12 and then showed what they are capable of against the big boys, drawing against the likes of Australia and UAE.

Big two clubs
With the development of Thai league, meanwhile, their top clubs have regularly appeared in the AFC Champions League, providing invaluable exposure and experience to many of the nation’s players. Buriram United and Muangthong United have both impressed in their recent Asian campaigns. The big two are also the biggest providers of players to the national team, with seven of their stars featuring in the startling line-up that took on UAE.

Overseas experience
Japan-based Chanathip has emerged as Thailand’s new hero with some standout performances in UAE. The Consadole Sapporo attacker scored the match-winner against Bahrain and had a hand in the equaliser against UAE. Teerasil Dangda, the team’s impressive striker, has also benefited from stints with Spanish side Almeria and J.League outfit Sanfrecce Hiroshima, while defender Theerathon Bunmathan is enjoying a spell on loan with Yokohama F. Marinos.

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