Road to Russia 2018: Hope dies last for Thailand

Thai National Team Charyl Chappuis

Is back: Charyl Chappuis

On Thursday the AFC's final stage of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is going to kick off. And for the first time since 2002, Thailand is part of it. Although the euphoria is very high, Thailand's men's team could qualify for a World Cup for the first time, hope is easy on.

Too much are the two big nations of Japan and Australia the Favorites to go to Russia. And also the schedule is not really in favour with the Thais. Sure, it could have got even worse. But three away games against Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and the Iraq doesn't look like a promising start. Plus the two home games against the two favourites in September and November.

There are not a few who believe Thailand could spring a surprise with Thai national coach Kiatisuk Senamuang one of them. But first, he has to go without his best domestic striker, Adisak Kraisorn, who got injured during a League Cup match shortly before the national team departed to the training camp in Qatar. Kraisorn has scored 14 goals so far this season. Four more than his idol and team mate Teerasil Dangda has to his name in the league. However, Bangkok United defender Mika Chunuonsee has been called up to replace him. Another player who will be missed because of injury is Wichaya Dechmitr.

Apart from the two, Zico can fall back on his complete first choice line-up and surprised with the nomination of Siroch Chatthong. The 23-year-old striker currently plays for Division One leader Ubon UMT United and scored two goals this season. In the most recent warm-up game against Qatar, he gave his debut for the "War Elephants" and played for full 90 minutes. Thailand lost the game 0-3 which was played behind closed doors at the request of the Qataris. Because there are no TV pictures of the game we can't rate Thailand's display nor the one of newcomer Siroch Chatthong. But his boss was full of praise: "At least, Pipo [Siroch] passed the test after he started the game and played the full 90 minutes. He's good alternative for us. He's strong, physically, not giving the ball away easily. He, though, has to link up with his teammates better."

Otherwise, Senamuang spared some of his regulars against Qatar and brought some of them on for the final 30 minutes. Nevertheless, the starting eleven did not look so bad even on the paper.

Reflecting on the first defeat against a Qatari team after 34 years, the 43-year-old coach got something positive out of the game: "We could see our mistakes today. Had we won, we could have got carried away," he said.

For the tie on Thursday against Saudi Arabia, we expect Kiatisuk to field his usual starting XI in a 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formation. He trusts his players and formation and so he will not change that much. Teerathon, who will wear the captain's armband, as left back, Do on the right and Tanaboon Keserat in the middle as the centre back. Although he could start as holding midfielder as well, but in midfield, Kiatisuk has several options to choose from.

Finally back in the ranks of the national team is Swiss-born and former under-17 World Champion Charyl Chappuis. Following an 18 month long injury, he played for almost 60 minutes against Qatar. His first minutes in the national shirt, since the AFF Cup Final in 2014. Against Saudi Arabia, he could start in midfield as well as Anan, Yooyen, and of course Chanathip Songkhrasin. Thaweekarn and Tossakrai as winger with Dangda in the middle is what we expect up-front.

Bert van Marwijk

Saudi coach: Bert van Marwijk
image: ING Nederland (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The last time Thailand and Saudi Arabia have met was in 2011. And like this time, it was during a World Cup qualifying round. With Winfried Schafer at the helm back then in November 2011, Thailand had to suffer a 0-3 loss at the King Fahd Stadium. Compared to 2011, Sinthaweechai and Teerathon are the only two players on the Thai side who are still part of the national team. For the Saudis, there are least seven players. Amongst them is Osama Hawsawi and Naif Hazazi. The latter scored the first goal in the game five years ago. We expect either Hazazi or Al-Sahlawi up front.

Earlier this year both sides have faced during the AFC under-23 Championship with the game ending in a 1-1 draw. Of Saudi Arabia, Fahad Al-Muwallad is the only player who made it to the current senior side the Thais are going to meet this Thursday.

However, like five years ago, a Dutchman will be in charge of Thailand's opponent. The difference, five years ago it was Frank Rijkard. And now the answer to the name of the coach is Bert van Marwijk. Known from the Bundesliga as coach of Borussia Dortmund and Hamburg, the now 64-year-old coach took over the job in the Middle East in August 2015. His record so far isn't that bad with 6-2-0 and speaks volume. As for the formation, Bert van Marwijk usually is playing a 4-2-3-1.

Like the Thais, van Marwijk's side have prepared for the qualifier with a warm-up. And they have picked Laos for obvious reasons. Saudi Arabi won the game by four goals to nil, with three goals scored between the 86' and injury time.

Anything other than a defeat of the team to Captain Teerathon against Saudi Arabia, which currently is ranked 61 in the FIFA ranking list, and thus would be good 60 places ahead of Thailand, would be a surprise. At the same time a draw, of course, would be a good start for the Thais before next week's clash against the Bundesliga world selection of Japan at the Rajamangala. In terms of quality, definitely, the toughest competitive game Thailand has to face in recent time.

However, the small flame of hope will be nurtured. And one is never being without really like Teerasil Dangda has told recently: "Yes, sometimes we think about going to the World Cup, though we know there is not much chance. But we always have hope because if we don't, why would we play."
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