As four giants of Southeast Asian football converge on the UAE this week, Thailand’s chance of advancing to the third round of World Cup qualifying are on a knife edge. Fans are expecting the War Elephants to emulate the feat they achieved four years ago, but their tally of eight points from their five games thus far means they will have to be at their absolute best to get through.
The unspoken consensus suggests that the War Elephants are targeting two wins and a draw from their games against Indonesia, Malaysia and the UAE. In this article, I look at whether or not those results will be enough for Thailand to make it to the next round by examining three different scenarios depending on results elsewhere.
Three different tables below explore each of the different scenarios depending on the results of games in which Thailand is not involved. I assume that Thailand’s two wins come against Indonesia and Malaysia and their draw comes against the hosts UAE since the latter represents the hardest match on paper. Therefore, Thailand’s results are held constant and they are predicted to end the campaign with 15 points.
The figures below explain each of the scenarios in detail. Each row represents the points collected by the team stated in the left column, and the numbers across the top row represent the number of games played. Since every team except the UAE has already played five games, that column is left blank.
Figure 1 above represents the best possible scenario for Thailand, in which they can still top their group with two wins and a draw, though it is important to stress that this is extremely unlikely. In fact, it relies on all of the remaining games Thailand is not involved in (five in total) ending in draws. This ‘dream’ scenario could be made even better if Indonesia takes full points against either Vietnam or the UAE while other results stay the same, but either way Thailand would still come out on top.
Figure 2 represents a potentially likely scenario, with a couple of slightly optimistic results thrown in, which would still see Thailand finish in the top two. Firstly, it is crucial that Malaysia and UAE draw their match; either side taking full points from that encounter would be a troubling scenario for Thailand. Indonesia are expected to lose all of their remaining games here, compounded by the fact that they have picked a very inexperienced team for the upcoming matches. However, they have arguably shown enough to deserve at least a few points from this group – as long as they don’t come against the War Elephants, and they do pick up would be a big help for Thailand. Vietnam being held to a draw by Malaysia is also beneficial since it prevents them from becoming complacent in their final game and potentially allowing the UAE to overtake Thailand.
Lastly, Figure 3 outlines the nightmare scenario for Thailand, in which two wins and a draw still sees us finish the campaign in third. Essentially, it involves the UAE winning all of their remaining games (with the exception of the one against us, since its held constant as a draw), including beating Vietnam on the final day, who would have already qualified by that point as a result of beating Indonesia and Malaysia. This scenario differs by just three results from the one outlined in Figure 2, making the first game between Malaysia and the UAE absolutely crucial to set us down the right path.
However, not every second-placed team qualifies for the next round, and Thailand will be compared against the other teams from different groups in the “runners-up rankings,” which will surely be another source of anxiety for Thai fans.
What about the runners-up rankings?
This ranking system is intended to compare the second-placed teams across all the different groups, with the top 4 or 5 (depending on Qatar’s placement, long story…) of the 8 group runners-up qualify for the next round. These are ranked first points collected in each group, and then goal difference in the case of tiebreakers.
What’s really thrown a spanner in the mix has been North Korea’s decision to drop out of the tournament, which leaves Group H with just four teams. Therefore, the sides in Group H have played two fewer games than teams from other groups. To make things ‘fair,’ points collected against North Korea in Group I have been voided, thus making it a genuine four-team group. By extension, every other group also needs to be treated the same, so points collected against the bottom-placed team in each group are not counted towards points in the runners-up rankings. This is standard practice for tournaments with asymmetrical group sizes, but the fact it comes as a sudden change is worrying.
It’s hard to say exactly whether 15 points (or 9 points collected against teams other than Indonesia) will be enough to see Thailand through to the next round. However, the current occupants of fifth in the runners-up rankings, Bahrain, have 6 points from 4 games, giving them 1.5 points per game ratio. If Thailand takes 9 “non-Indo” points from their 6 “non-Indo” games, they will also have 1.5 points per game, which should be just enough to see us through assuming “points collection rates” remain the same. Even then, it could come down to goal difference.
Will anything less than two wins and a draw be enough?
We can say with 99.9% certainty that anything less than two wins and a draw will not be enough to see Thailand advance to the next round. Even in the “best case” scenario above, I gave Indonesia only draws against Vietnam and the UAE. Even if Indonesia was to beat Vietnam, that would leave them on 13 points. Thailand could then top the group on goal difference with two wins and a loss, assuming they have a superior goal difference to Vietnam (and that loss didn’t come against Malaysia). Thailand could theoretically come second behind Vietnam with just 13 points (or even 12, depending on which teams take the points we drop), but we likely wouldn’t stand a chance in the 2nd place rankings with that tally.
Ultimately, the War Elephants should simply focus on what they can control, and make sure they can get the best possible results out of their three games.