Thailand’s Class of ’18 out to emulate 2014 success and conquer Bukit Jalil

Can Thailand conquer Bukit Jalil Stadium in Malaysia again
Kelvin Leong Kelvin Leong

Can Malaysia avenge the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup final heartbreak when they go up against Thailand on Saturday in the first leg of the 2018 semifinals?

It was five days before Christmas in 2014 and the Bukit Jalil cauldron was packed to the rafters two hours prior to kick-off, with all 90,000 seats on offer occupied.

At stake was a second AFF Suzuki Cup title for Dollah Salleh’s Harimau Malaya while the visitors were gunning for a record fourth title to tie Singapore as the most successful team in the competition’s 18-year history.

Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang (Photo: AFF Suzuki Cup)

Thai legend Kiatisuk Senamuang’s quest to become the first man to lift the Suzuki Cup trophy both as a player and manager served as a tantalising teaser at the storied venue.

With a 2-0 lead from the first leg in Bangkok, the War Elephants stepped into the Bukit Jalil cauldron, knowing they already had one hand on a fourth trophy.

That narrative turned into an unexpected 3-0 scoreline with less than 30 minutes on the game clock. A Safiq Rahim double, sandwiched in between an Indra Putra Mahayuddin header, left the wounded Elephants wondering what had struck them.

Then, with eight minutes left on the clock, magic happened. Poster boy Charyl Chappuis smashed in a rebound from a Kroekrit Thaweekarn free-kick to swing the tie back their way.

Charyl Chappuis

As Harimau Malaya surged forward for a decisive fourth goal, tournament MVP Chanathip Songkrasin plunged the dagger into Malaysian hearts on 87 minutes.

He collected the ball just outside the box and sent a pinpoint thunderbolt past goalkeeper Farizal Marlias.

The whistle sounded and Thailand lifted their fourth Suzuki Cup title.

Fast forward to 2018, Milovan Rajevac’s 23 warriors will step into the same cauldron on Saturday, with the same objective, to secure a positive result, to continue their march towards an incredulous sixth title.

The Thais have owned the competition for six consecutive years and anything less than a third successive trophy will be considered a failure for the Changsuek.

Rajevac’s insistence on choosing form players has seen the omission of fan favourites Sarach Yooyen, Kroekrit and Chappuis.

The Serb even left out their Japan and Belgium-based stars, confident he still has enough quality to defend the title.

While Thai fans continued to have doubts at the start of the tournament, Changsuek went about their business early with a 7-0 mauling of Timor-Leste to open their Group B accounts.

In Adisak ‘Ultraman’ Kraisorn, they have a striker who is out to prove a point following a long-term injury. His goalpoaching instincts have been second to none and Tan Cheng Hoe’s defenders cannot afford to let him out of their sight. But if Adisak is playing the superhero role of Batman, he has found his Robin in Bangkok United playmaker Sanrawat Dechmitr.

The lanky 29-year-old plays in front of two holding midfielders Thitiphan Puangchan and Tanaboon Kesarat.

With five assists and 230 passes completed in the group stage, Sanrawat is one of the leaders of the tournament in stats, and is well on his way to MVP status.

But Malaysia can ill afford to focus on the duo alone.

Fandi Ahmad’s Lions went into their 3-0 loss to Thailand with a game plan to “stop Sanrawat, stop Thailand” but it backfired as 19-year-old forward Supachai Jaided stepped up and left the Lions dead and buried.

Another new kid on the block on the international scene, Supachai, who has more of a basketballer physique has a first touch beyond his years, and has heat-missile accuracy in his right boot.

Make no mistake about it, this Thai side has quality. The only weakness is between the sticks where former Chiangrai United goalkeeper Chatchai Budprom has stolen the march on Siwarak Tedsungnoen as the starting stopper.

His gaffe in the 1-1 draw against the Philippines can be put down as unlucky, but he almost scored a ridiculous own-goal against Singapore when he took his eyes off a Sanrawat backpass and allowed the ball past him. Luckily for the 31-year-old, he salvaged the situation in time and all was good.

With Kawin Thamsatchanan focusing on his club commitments in Belgium, Thai fans will be praying to the footballing gods that Chatchai does not cower in the Bukit Jalil heat.

All said and done, Malaysia have surprised many by going this far in the tournament but the truth is that, if Thailand show up on Saturday, their quality is beyond the Tigers, and most teams in the region for that matter.

For all the brilliance Sanrawat has shown in this tournament, he and the rest of the 2018 War Elephants must come away from Bukit Jalil with a result to win the seal of approval from the fans.

If Rajevac is to continue silencing his critics, the Serbian coach must avoid a potential banana skin at the very stadium where Kiatisuk Senamuang sealed his status as Thailand’s most successful coach.

The battle of Bukit Jalil will be a fiery one. The question in tow is, can Thailand’s Class of 2018 match the heroics of Zico’s 2014 Golden Boys.