Old friends on the way to Russia 2018

Thai National Team AFC U23 Qualifier
New hope springs within the fans of the male version of the War Elephants, that their side could qualify for its first ever World Cup appearance and a first appearnce at the Asian Cup since 2007 when Thailand was hosting the tournament.

Indeed, at least latter seems feasible and absolutely realistic and based on the result of the draw to the second qualifying round to the World Cup 2018 in Russia where Thailand will face Chinese Taipei, Iraq and its well known long time rivals Indonesia and Vietnam in Group F. Because this qualifying round, as well as the following ones, count as qualifiers to the Asian Championship in 2019 in unison. Merging the qualification rounds of the World Cup and Asian Cup is not the only innovation the AFC has introduced. Another one is the increase of the Asian Cup to 24 teams in four years.

One reason to merge these preliminary rounds are that the AFC wants to see her nations to play more games on official FIFA matchdays on a regular base. But has, however, complicated the mode in the same way.

The mode

The eight group winners and the four best group runners-up will advance to the third round of the qualifiers and automatically advance to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup finals. Should, for example, Thailand fail to qualify at the second stage, there would be a repechage for the Asian Cup which will be played separate from the third round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification.

In that round the next best 24 teams, after the already qualified best 12 teams, will compete in a third 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualification round and compete for the remaining slots.

How the qualification to Russia 2018 goes on after the second or a third round, we will deal with in detail if Thailand succeeds. And how many slots the AFC will finally get by FIFA (currently 4.5 berths) is not confirmed yet.

Thailand's opponents of Group F

Of course we will talk indepth on Thailand's group opponents in a timely manner and to Indonesia and Vietnam everything is said anyway as one knows each other pretty well. But it will be very interesting to see how the squads of those three will look like on matchday one. Because at the same time the first round is going to be played, the 28th SEA-Games are taking place whose draw happened this Wednsday.

So to say which under-23 talent is going to play for which side? Seniors or youngsters? In case of Chanathip Songkrasin it seems head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang have made his decision and the youngster will play the SEA-Games. Meanwhile matured to an AFF Suzuki Cup MVP, the 21-year old made only one appearance during Thailand's 2013 winning campaign.

Following Vietnam on the opening day, Thailand will face Chinese Taipei on the 16 June 2015. Chinese Taipei actually ranks 188 on FIFA's world ranking list and surely can be tagged with the label of the 'underdog' of Group F. And not just because this. However, 15 years are between the last time and now Thailand and its opponent in June have met on the pitch for an official competitive match. Back that times the Thais could win the encounter by the slimmest margin of 1-0. Today's coach of Chainat FC, Thawatchai Damrong-Ongtrakul, could score the winner.

Favorite to top Group F is the nation which could stun a surprise during the recent edition of the Asian Cup. It was in January when Iraq finished its group ahead of Palestine and Jordan and knocked out rival Iran after penalties to advance to the semi-finals. After losing to South Korea in the semis, Iraq also lost its third place match against next hosting side of the Asian Cup, the Emirates.

The last time Thailand faced Iraq in a competive match dates back to 2008 when the Thais were able to overcome the visitors by 2-1. And the last time the Iraqis could bag in a win against the Thais even dates back to 2001. However, rather in fresh in mind is the painfully defeat Thailand had to swollow in 2014 at the Bronze medal match of the Asian Games.

All in all, an interesting and open group which looks well-balanced and in which, under certain circumstances, anything is possible. Even if realistically speaking a qualification of Thailand for Russia would be more than just a slight sensation. But this isn't the target of coach Kiatisuk Senamuang anyway. More important for him is his young and talented team is able to advance as much as possible and can collect valuable experience. And if we are talking about young, of course we are talking abut the core of the team who won the AFF Cup. Latter averaged an age of 23, while the seniors against Cameroon in March averaged an age of above 26. Thus owned to the AFC under-22 qualification.

However, the silly thing is, the result of the draw foils Kiatisuk's plans a bit. Sure, everyone is happy with the result of the draw, but the Thai coach aims for more. He aims to leave its mark beyond Southeast Asia. And since Indonesia and Vietnam, are just to familiar and of the same region, it won't help his team to develop and to grow with the challenge. They even wouldn't have to leave its comfort zone. And it won't help Vietnam and Indonesia either to play the same opponent over and over again. Or would it help England to play against the likes of Wales, Scotland and Ireland year in year out?

Another disadvantage of the draw for Thailand might be the expectations by the fans and the media. Currently the number 1 of the region, anything else than finishing behind the old rivals in Group F would be called a fail and finishing the group as runner-up is almost expected. Anything else certainly would be a bitter disappointment for the fans.
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