Thailand must hit the ground running in their long-awaited return to competitive action against Indonesia on Thursday.
The clash with the Garuda is the first of three remaining Group G matches in the second round of AFC qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
Thailand’s previous qualifier was a 0-0 draw in Vietnam in November 2019 – a full 562-day gap. That result left them sitting third in the group – three points behind the Vietnamese and one behind Malaysia. The War Elephants do sit two points ahead of the United Arab Emirates but the host country has a game in hand.
It is absolutely essential that Thailand get off to a winning start against Indonesia, even if the points earned against the side likely to finish bottom of the group may ultimately not count once all the matches have been played.
Here are three things to look out for on Thursday.
Suphanat strikes put him in pole position
In three warm-up matches, Thailand lost two and drew one. A 1-0 defeat to Oman was followed by a 2-2 tie against Tajikistan in an official friendly. Finally, the Thais collapsed to a 4-1 defeat in the final third of their match against Uzbekistan.
Those results don’t exactly lift morale, especially as a 2-0 lead was blown against Tajikistan and the defence capitulated against the Uzbeks. However, there was a noticeable bright spot.
Thailand’s wonder kid Suphanat Mueanta hit a sublime double in the second match, pushing his claims for a starting slot. The Buriram United attacker’s first was reminiscent of Mason Greenwood as he took a touch, turned and fired home instinctively. The second was even better. An exquisite piece of skill threw his marker off balance and made space for him to calmly dink the ball home from close range.
In some style, the 18-year-old had also made history by becoming the youngest player to score two goals in a match for Thailand. It was heartening to see the county’s finest prospect in this kind of form after a difficult season at his club saw his game time limited.
With regular first choice striker Teerasil Dangda injured, it will surely be difficult for head coach Akira Nishino to ignore Suphanat’s claims
Wide boys can hold the key
The Thai squad has particular strengths and weaknesses, but it certainly has depth in the number of players who can provide pace and energy on the wings.
Nishino has been in charge long enough to know that he needs to play to the strengths of the squad. It cannot be ignored that Jaroensak Wonggorn has the skills and pace to trouble most opponents while Supachok Sarachat and Ekanit Panya can also be effective in wide areas.
The full-backs like Tristan Do, Narubadin and Sasalak Haiprakhon are all very attack-minded and can add further strength in the opposition half.
However Nishino chooses to set up, the attacking flair and pace of several squad members should be a key consideration. The Japanese has often surprised fans with his team selections and we can again expect the unexpected.
Thailand tend to look better when they are on the front foot and the intention should be to dominate their opponents with their creative players at the forefront.
No room for complacency
Sitting on zero points from five matches and playing with an inexperienced squad, it would be easy to write off Indonesia’s chances. Southeast Asia’s most populous nation has again underwhelmed at international level in these qualifiers.
However, they are looking to the future and have brought a squad full of youngsters who are just beginning their international careers. Like Thailand, results in the warm-up games weren’t particularly encouraging as they suffered defeats to Afghanistan and Oman.
But this is a chance for many players to establish themselves and Thailand should be wary of the likes of Kushedya Yudo and Osvaldo Haay in attack while there are also foreign-based players to look out for.
Defender Asnawi Mangkualam is at Ansan Greeners in South Korea’s second tier, while Syahrian Abimanyu is on loan at A.League side Newcastle Jets.
It would be an upset if this Indonesia side were to take something from the game, but they should not be underestimated. A professional approach and a commitment to using Thailand’s attacking weapons should ensure they kickoff the final three games of the campaign with three points.