By Gabriel Tan
The Thais, who have long been regarded as the dominant force in Southeast Asian football, have not tasted success in the region's premier international tournament since 2002, which was their third triumph after 1996 and 2000.
Since then, the War Elephants have had to endure two runners-up finishes in 2007 and 2008, as well as embarassing group stage exits in 2004 and 2010.
However, there is something different about Winfried Schafer's men this year as they almost look like a side playing to end ten years of misery.
Here, ESPNSTAR.com takes a look at how they got this far, their previous final appearances and the players who could be a factor.
Route to the final
The War Elephants got their Group A campaign off to a dream start despite a tricky tie against Philippines, racing to a two-goal lead before the break thanks to goals from Jakkapan Pornsai and Anucha Kitpongsri.
Although Paul Mulders did pull one back for the Azkals in the 77th minute, Thailand did enough to hold on for the win.
Three days later, they booked their place in the semis after a commanding 4-0 win over Myanmar, who had no answer for the magnificent Teerasil Dangda.
After the Muangthong United man had opened the scoring in the 20th minute with a lovely strike, Apipoo Suntornpanavej came off the bench to nod home the Thais' second a minute before the hour mark to put them firmly in the driving seat.
Eight minutes from the end, Teerasil raced onto a glorious through-ball by Theerathon Bunmathan and fired into the bottom corner to double his tally, before completing his hat-trick seven minutes later with another clinical finish after a visionary pass from Sompong Soleb.
Match report: Myanmar 0-4 Thailand
With qualification already secured, Thailand coach Winfried Schafer opted to rest a few of his big names for their final game against the Vietnamese, but it didn't seem to matter as they cruised to a 3-1 victory.
Kirati Keowsumbat, who replaced Teerasil in the starting XI, showed he is more than capable of leading the line by firing his side ahead in the 21st minute, before netting a second five minutes after the hour mark.
|1||Thailand||3 ||3 ||0||0||9 ||2||7 ||9 |
|2||Philippines||3 ||2 ||0 ||1 ||4 ||2 ||2 ||6 |
|3||Vietnam||3 ||0||1||2 ||2 ||5 ||-3 ||1|
|4||Myanmar||3 ||0||1 ||2 ||1||7 ||-6 ||1 |
In what was arguably the match of the tournament, Thailand then locked horns with defending champions Malaysia in the first leg of their last-four clash at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium, and following a goalless first half, Harimau Malaya took the lead in the 48th minute when Norshahrul Idlan Talaha nodded home a good cross from Mahalli Jasuli.
Nonetheless, that goal sparked the previously-lackustre visitors to life and they duly grabbed the equaliser, and a valuable away goal, when Teerasil netted with an exquisite header 11 minutes from time.
Three days later, with plenty still to play for at the Suphachalasai Stadium, the War Elephants got to second leg off to a dominant start and were only denied the opening goal by some excellent goalkeeping by Farizal Marlias.
But their prospects of victory were handed a real boost two minutes before halftime when Fadhli Shas was harshly given a second yellow for a confrontation with Datsakorn Thonglao, and the hosts proceeded to make their numerical advantage count after the break as they claimed the win thanks to goals from Teerasil and Theerathon Bunmathan.
Previous final appearances
1996: Thailand 1-0 Malaysia
2000: Thailand 4-1 Indonesia
2002: Indonesia 2-2 Thailand (2-4 on penalties)
2007: Singapore 2-1 Thailand, Thailand 1-1 Singapore
2008: Thailand 1-2 Vietnam, Vietnam 1-1 Thailand
Players to watch
The solid centre-back partnership between Panupong Wongsa and Chonlatit Jantakam means Thailand's full-backs are often able to push forward and contribute in attack, which is something both Theerathon Bunmathan and Piyaphon Buntao have done to perfection all tournament long.
Although Theerathon is regarded as the more technically-gifted of the duo, Piyaphon has shown he is no slouch either but regularly bombing down the right, and even laid on an assist in the first leg against Malaysia when his perfectly-weighted ball was headed home by Teerasil.
The Muangthong defender is also steady at the back and has established himself as a vital member of the War Elephants.
While much has been made of Thailand's attacking prowess, all that would not be possible if not for the work down by the tireless Adul Lahsoh, who performs the thankless task of winning possession for his side in every game.
However, once the Chonburi man has the ball, he is extremely capable of getting his side on the front foot with his short, incisive passing and plays the role of anchorman to perfection.
With a stable defence and a midfield bursting with energy and enterprise, it appears the only thing left for Schafer's side to do is put the ball in the back of the net, something no one does better than Teerasil.
Already the leading scorer in the competition with five clinically-taken strikes, the 24-year-old is more than just a goal-getter and regularly drops deep to play his part in building up attacks in the final third.
If he manages to find space and slip away from the tight marking of Baihakki Khaizan, he has the all the necessary weapons to deal a decisive blow to Singapore's chances.