FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan previews what promises to be an enthralling duel between Chanathip Songkrasin and Omar Abdulrahman at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
One is a former Asian Footballer of the Year, widely regarded as one of the continent’s best players but who has never taken the big leap of testing himself outside of his comfort zone.
The other is less famous outside of his native Southeast Asia but is slowly making more and more headlines, and is presently looking to prove himself in one of Asia’s toughest leagues at a club with a fairly modest history.
Following Friday’s draw for the upcoming AFC Asian Cup, January 14, 2019 will be the day the continent witnesses two magicians go head to head in a bid to lead their respective countries one step closer to glory.
#AsianCup2019 Group A:
Which clash are you most looking forward to watch?
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) May 4, 2018
Messi v Ronaldo is a debate that will continue to go on long after both greats have hung up their boots.
But has anyone ever stopped to wonder what it would be like to witness Messi v Messi?
The Asian Cup can boast the next best thing when Chanathip Songkrasin – the Thai Messi (his real nickname) – and Omar Abdulrahman – the Emirati Messi (I may have just made that one up) – stand on opposite ends on the field at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium next January.
What makes it all better is that – in the grander scheme of things – the duel between two undoubtedly talented individuals is a mere subplot in what is shaping up to be one of the standout ties of Asia’s premier international tournament.
Since 1980, UAE have qualified for all but one Asian Cup and their best performance came in 1996 when they finished as runners-up on home soil.
As hosts once again and under the stewardship of Italian legend Alberto Zaccheroni, the Emiratis should be included amongst the title contenders.
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) May 4, 2018
Which, logically, means that Group A should result in them comfortably finishing top with nine points from three matches, as you would expect from Iran in Group D or Japan in Group F.
However, there is a small, 1.6-metre obstacle standing in their way in the form of Chanathip, as well as a not-so-small obstacle in the form of a talented and well-organised Thailand.
The Thais once finished third at the Asian Cup back in 1972 but are back competing against the best for the first time since 2007, having failed to qualify for the previous two editions.
In the past five years, they have made huge strides towards establishing themselves as not only the dominant side in Southeast Asia, but a genuine force to be reckoned with at an Asian level.
Milovan Rajevac, final draw for Asian Cup UAE 2019! Good luck 🍀 THAILAND 🇹🇭 pic.twitter.com/rYJJWC2Bwi
— Vukadinovic Dejan (@vukadinovicdej) May 4, 2018
And, if they are to take the next step towards proving they can compete against the likes of Iran and Japan, then they must not settle for anything less than vying with UAE for top spot in Group A.
Even if UAE were at Iran or Japan’s level, any side of Thailand’s quality with any long-term ambition should still be looking to match their opponents.
But UAE are not at that level, which means the Thais should all the more look to give them a go, even on their own turf.
The two sides met as recently as in the Asian qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with UAE winning 3-1 at home back in October 2016, while the return encounter in Bangkok last June resulted in a 1-1 draw.
There is no better stage for the War Elephants to show how they have continued to progress.
One person who certainly has is – of course – Chanathip, who is now a bona fide star of the J1 League, with three goals in ten games for high-flying Consadole Sapporo so far this season.
The 24-year-old could have been forgiven had he decided to remain in Thailand, where he was a national hero regularly mobbed by fans while playing for domestic giants Muangthong United.
That is, after all, the path Omar has chosen to take with his professional career at Al Ain about to enter its second decade, even though many believe his natural ability would guarantee success abroad, even in Europe.
Yet, Chanathip opted to learn the hard way against teams like Urawa Red Diamonds, Cerezo Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale, and has already emerged a stronger, better player after less than a year.
Is the man known as “Messi Jay” ready to step up to the next level? The jury is still out.
Proving himself against one of Asia’s best next January would be a start.
Leading Thailand to victory? Now, that would just be something.