Thailand still have it all to play for

As the halfway mark is passed of the final stage on the road to Russia little is clear.

Several nations have put themselves in a strong position but none have run away with things. While even those at the bottom can still afford to dream, knowing a couple of wins over the next week can catapult them right back into the reckoning.

That holds true even for Thailand who face two massive clashes, firstly at home to group leaders Saudi Arabia and then on the road at perennial qualifiers Japan.

The Thais currently prop up the section with just the lone point from their five matches but, with the exception of a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Iraq, they’ve been far from disgraced.

Kiatisuk Senamuang’s side were competitive in narrow losses against the Saudis and the UAE and probably deserved to take more than the one point in a 2-2 draw against Australia in mid-November.

Since then though several key ingredients have been added to the mix and they should fill the Thais with hope that not all is lost and that perhaps they’re still in with an outside chance of getting the points they need over the coming week to stay in contention for at least a playoff spot.

The first was the team’s triumph at December’s AFF Suzuki Cup where they were, easily, the most impressive nation at the Southeast Asian tournament.

Sure, the standard is several levels below what they’ll face with the Saudis and the Japanese but winning breeds confidence and even more so when you’re doing it with the kind of panache that the War Elephants displayed at home, in Myanmar, the Philippines and in Indonesia.

Regional dominance was upheld in December.

In conceding just the four goals throughout the tournament and banging home 15 they proved, if any more evidence was required, that their level has now moved beyond that of their regional rivals, and aiming for sustained success on the continental stage has to be the goal moving forward.

The second element that the nation can draw upon heading into these matches is that once again the core of the squad has been drawn from the domestic powerhouse, Muangthong United, with no fewer than ten players selected from the runaway league leaders.

Early though it may be the fact that the team has demolished all comers over the start to the Thai League (six wins from six and not a single goal conceded) should see those individuals that will likely comprise the core of the first XI flush with confidence.

Just as importantly though was the stunning, yet deserved, 2-1 win that the club recorded over Japanese champion Kashima Antlers last month in the Asian Champions League.

With the J.League outfit possessing two current and five former Japanese internationals it was a victory that should demonstrate to the Thai players that the gap between the nations is not as insurmountable as many – not least of all within Japan – think that it is.

Muangthong’s Xisco celebrates his winner against the Antlers.

The final piece of the puzzle was the recent contract extension signed by the man known as ‘Zico.’

After much conjecture and a lengthy, drawn-out, process Kiatisuk finally signed a new one-year deal earlier this year and both the coach and his squad can now settle down without distraction to plot a way to pick up the dozen or so points that they’ll likely need to reach the playoff spot.

There is – and the squad clearly knows it – little margin for error.

With road trips to Japan and Australia on the horizon the War Elephants must simply win, at a minimum, each of their three remaining home clashes and that starts with the Saudis this week.

After facing the Green Falcons in Riyadh on the first matchday and going toe-to-toe with them for the bulk of the game – only to lose after conceding an 84th minute penalty – there shouldn’t be a great deal of fear.

The coach has publicly targeted wins in those remaining home matches and has taken his squad away from Bangkok this week to prepare where he’s gone into almost complete lockdown mode as he aims to keep the group fully focused.

Star defender Teerathon Bunmathan looks to have recovered from an injury suffered in Muangthong’s most recent ACL outing in a boost, although the form of forward Siroch Chatthong remains a concern as the Ubon-based striker is yet to score in the new season.

The hosts might also be best advised to tone down some of their criticism surrounding the appointment of Bahraini referee Ali Hassan Abdulnabi, but by and large the preparations seem to be on track.

The visiting Saudis have also left no stone unturned in their preparation, paying handsomely to rent the Supachalasai Stadium for a week following their arrival – by private jet, no less – last Friday.

The Saudis will start as warm favourites but a Thailand side with little to lose are more than capable of pulling off what many would see as an upset win.

Expect the home side to play an up-tempo match where they look to pressure the visitors early with some aggressive pressing and then maintain possession through their neat midfield passing and with an advantage in terms of mobility and technical level.

If they can match things with a physical Saudi side then this clash could well be a lot closer than many expect.