Leicester City’s ‘Iniesta’ on standby for injury-hit Thailand

One name stands out from the rest when looking at the squad list for Thailand’s Group G World Cup qualifiers in the United Arab Emirates in June.

In a squad that is missing the quality of Theerathon Bunmathan and Teerasil Dangda, the star man remains Chanathip Songkrasin, whose four-year affiliation with J.League club Consadole Sapporo has seen him become famous throughout Asia. 

But the name that jumps off the page is Thanawat Suengchitthawon, as Leicester City are the club he plays for.

Going into the final three games of the second round of the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, the War Elephants have a player at the fifth best club in the English Premier League and the 2021 FA Cup winners.

Thanawat is yet to make his debut for Brendan Rodgers’ side, but his performances for the Foxes’ U23s were enough to see him sit on the first team bench for a couple of EPL fixtures.

While the attacking midfielder has been limited to football for the lower age groups so far, six goals in 17 matches in a competitive U23 league suggests he has potential.

It may look somewhat unfortunate for Thailand that Thanawat is just the latest of many diminutive, fleet-footed, attacking midfielders. He looks very much in the mould of Chanathip, Supachok Sarachat and Ekanit Panya. On Friday, Thailand head coach Akira Nishino compared his playing style to the Spanish midfield maestro, Andres Iniesta.

The War Elephants are more in need of a prolific striker or a talented centre-back, but Thanawat may still have an important role to play.

While Chanathip’s quality at international level is unquestionable, it looks increasingly like his fitness issues may prevent him from taking part in the UAE.

And you have to wonder if Supachok and Ekanit could cut it at U23 level in England.

To put the level into context, when Leicester City U23 beat Manchester United U23, Thanawat scored twice for the Foxes, while Anthony Elanga netted a brace for the Red Devils. 19-year-old Swedish striker Elanga scored for United’s first team against Wolves on the final day of the EPL season.

If Chanathip is absent as anticipated, Nishino may be tempted to ask Thanawat to step up. The biggest challenge could be the limited time the 21-year-old has had with the squad. The War Elephants had a Covid-interrupted camp in Thailand before flying to the UAE, where Thanawat joined them on Tuesday.

However, it might just be a risk worth taking with a player who seems to have developed since moving from Nancy’s second team to Leicester.

Thanawat had gone under the radar of many fans. He was born to Thai parents in Suphanburi but moved to France at a young age. He has played for France at U16 and U17 level but his recent elevation to the Leicester first-team squad caught the eye of his country of origin.

There was no hesitation in opting to represent the country he was born in and it could be quite a coup for Thailand if Thanawat develops into a player good enough for the English top tier or even the Championship.

Nishino’s men face a huge test in their bid to reach the third and final round of AFC qualifying for just the third time in their history. The missed opportunities in their two goalless draws with Vietnam and the lacklustre performance in a 2-1 defeat in Malaysia leave them in a precarious position.

However, if Nishino can inspire his team to hit the heights they reached in the 2-1 victory at home to UAE in October 2019, they definitely have a chance. Thailand may well need to beat Indonesia, UAE and Malaysia to progress and even that may not be enough.

Thanawat’s presence in the squad adds an element of unpredictability and some hope. The absences of star players like Theerathon and Teerasil are a significant blow. The uncertainty over Chanathip’s fitness is an additional headache.

But none of the above have ever sat on the bench of a team in the EPL’s Top 5. Thanawat may just represent an interesting prospect for now, but by mid-June, he could be the name on everyone’s lips.

Paul Murphy

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