Two nights before Changsuek fly out to Dubai for their remaining three matches of the Asian Zone World Cup Qualifiers Round 2, the biggest news unfortunately concerns who isn’t going, rather than who is.
Throughout the past week, rumors of star left back Theerathon Bunmathan’s potential withdrawal from the squad have been looming around various media outlets. Then, like a lightning strike on Wednesday evening – the Thai Football Association put out an official statement confirming that Theerathon had chosen to withdraw from the team. The supposed reason behind this decision is Japan’s new travel restrictions, which would force him into a mandatory 14-day quarantine. This would result in the Yokohama F-Marinos defender missing out on significant game time on the pitch as well as time off it with family.
Although he has yet to come out to speak publicly about his choice, Aum’s decision has been criticised by some supporters and members of the media. More importantly, it raises some big questions about this Changsuek team:
- Who should replace Theerathon ?
Replacing might not be a suitable word as Theerathon’s attacking prowess, defensive reliability, crossing threat, shooting accuracy and most importantly leadership character just simply can’t be matched by anyone else in this roster. His 64 caps for the national team combined with over three years experience playing in the J-League would have allowed him to play a great ‘big brother’ role for many youngsters looking to learn from him. But now that he’s chosen to bail from this team, it’s next man up for the left back spot.
The most obvious option would be Buriram’s Sasalak Haiprakhon. Ever since he joined the club in 2017, he has risen in the talented depth chart of wingbacks in Thailand. His fiery attitude compliments well with the silkiness in his game. Sasalak’s strong points include his dribbling abilities and eagerness to go forward, something that Theerathon also brings to Thailand’s team.
Sasalak played in 26 league games last year and registered five assists; not the type of stats that stand out right away. But when you put into context how he’s created 29 scoring opportunities for his teammates, put in 42 successful tackles and earned his side 64 fouls throughout the season, that’s better than any of the other three left backs in the roster.
In addition to his abilities, experience will be a key factor in this tournament. Ernesto, Jaturapat and Chatmongkol combined for a total of 0 appearances for Thailand’s first team. So it’s safe to say, Akira Nishino will probably be looking Sasalak’s way when he’s putting in his team sheet for the match against Indonesia on June 3, 2021.
- If Theerathon withdrew, will Chanathip too ?
Following Theerathon’s decision to withdraw from the national team, a lot of fans will be thinking to themselves ‘Will Chanathip not show up too?’
As mentioned earlier, Japan’s new COVID-19 protocol means that everybody who comes back into the country will have to go through the mandatory 14-day quarantine. To add on, starting May 21, non-Japanese citizens flying in from Thailand and six other nations will be prohibited from entering. Although UAE isn’t one of them, this still makes flying to Dubai and back into Japan a tough task for Chanathip.
But as of today, Jay has come out to say that he still plans to join the rest of the team in UAE. The attacking midfielder has been sidelined due to a knee injury he picked up late in the game against Shonan Bellmare on matchday 15 of J-League. Earlier this week he was able to start running in training again but isn’t anywhere near match fitness level yet. So even if Chanathip decides to join the Changsuek side, his place in the starting 11 is not guaranteed.
- What does Theerathon’s absence mean for Thailand’s chances of qualifying ?
If Teerasil’s injury caused a dent in Thailand’s attack, then Theerathon’s withdrawal has created a hole in Thailand’s defense. The two veterans would easily walk into any Thai National Team line up from past to present and without them it’s fair to say the chances you’ll see the War Elephants advance to the next round are quite slim.
However, the ball has not yet been kicked so there’s still hope. Earlier before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nishino’s U-23 side did well to advance to the quarter final of the AFC U23 Championship in Thailand. Young star Jaroensak Wonggorn finished off as top goal scorer, Suphanat Mueanta burst onto the scene and his older half-brother Supachok Sarachat didn’t let the home crowd down either. Of course, there is also Nattawut Suksum who is more than capable of finishing chances in front of goal.
As for the defense, it’s all about playing as a unit at this point. Sasalak may have to fill Theerathon’s shoes but Nishino still has plenty of experience and proven talent to call upon across the rest of the back-line, such as Tom Bihr, Pansa Hemviboon, Suphan Thongsong, Tristan Do and Narubadin Weerawatnodom.
The opener against Indonesia will show us a lot in terms of how much grit, fight and talent this team actually has. It will be tough, as there are no easy games at this level, but one thing’s for sure – the players left on this roster will give it their all for that flag on their chest.