Thais prove they are closing gap on Asia's elite under Rajevac

Thai players look dejected after their loss to Iraq in a World Cup qualifier on Aug 31, 2017. (M2F photo)

Striking a major blow for Southeast Asian football, Thailand came within four minutes of a famous result to conclude their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign in memorable style.

The reigning Suzuki Cup (Southeast Asian) champions can hold their heads high after a spirited 2-1 loss against Australia in Melbourne on Tuesday night.

Pokklaw A-Nan's equaliser eight minutes from time stunned the near capacity crowd at AAMI Park before Mathew Leckie restored Australia's lead in the 86th minute.

The predicted avalanche of goals against a Thai team who'd secured only two points out of a possible 27 in their previous nine matches never materialised.

The Socceroos failed to secure a victory big enough to cancel out Saudi Arabia's 1-0 home win against Japan a few hours later.

The 2015 Asian champions are headed for a two-legged play-off against Syria next month.

As for the Thais, they can reflect on their defensive improvements under new coach Milovan Rajevac, especially away from their Bangkok comfort zone.

On a bitterly cold night in Australia's sporting capital, six of the 11 Thai players came out wearing gloves at kick-off, compared to none from the home side.

And they had extra motivation to perform well to honour two national officials who were killed last week in a car accident.

Tactically, Thailand were a different side to the one that faced the Socceroos in Bangkok just nine months ago when they impressed with their attacking flair in a 2-2 draw.

The War Elephants were coached by former national team striker Kiatisak Senamuang, and played a daring 4-4-2 formation.

Since then, Serbian Rajevac, a former defender, has made the Thais more compact, and harder to break down.

They put in a strong shift behind the ball, especially in the first half, even though they needed to ride their luck at times.

And Thailand had their moments in attack, especially on the break, and their one-and-only overseas based player Chanathip "Messi Jay" Songkrasin was at the heart of it.

Melbourne's sizeable community of Thai expatriates was out in force in the crowd, and their voices could be heard every time the visitors provided a threat on the counter-attack.

Chanathip, who plays for Consadole Sapporo in the J-League, had an absorbing battle with central defender Trent Sainsbury and kept Mark Milligan, switched to midfield, on his toes.

Teerasil Dangda, who picked up a double against the Aussies last November, was also dangerous.

Just before half-time, goalkeeper Mat Ryan was forced out of his area to bring Teerasil down, conceding a free kick in a dangerous position.

And Teerasil thought he'd won a nailed-on penalty immediately after half-time after pouncing on an Australian turnover to burst into the box.

But after Sainsbury tackled him from behind, the Hong Kong referee waved play on, with the score still at 0-0.

The Thais endured 45 shots over the course of the match, and yet didn't concede until the 69th minute.

Coach Ange Postecoglou lamented that even if 10 percent of their attempts were successful, Australia would have achieved a victory big enough to secure automatic passage to Russia.

Tim Cahill, captain on the night, told ESPN FC that he felt that his side could have won 11-1 on another night.

But such comments don't paint an accurate picture of the War Elephants' plucky performance.

Certainly, the success of Thai champions SCG Muang Thong United in the 2017 AFC Champions League -- they defeated Brisbane Roar on the way to making the knockout stages for the first time -- helped build confidence for the national team's improvements.

When Rajevac, who began his Thailand reign in May, predicted after Tuesday's game that Thailand would be "a big success" at the 2019 Asian Cup, he was doing more than paying mere lip service.

Even if the former Ghana boss, who signed a one-year contract with the Football Association of Thailand, isn't around for the tournament in the United Arab Emirates in 16 months' time, the Thais have done enough in recent months to suggest that they are closing the gap on Asia's elite.


Jason Dasey is Singapore-based senior editor of football website ESPN FC. Twitter: @JasonDasey

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