Thailand must seal a double over the United Arab Emirates to keep alive their hopes of reaching the third round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
Thursday’s dropped points in the draw with Indonesia struck a huge blow to their chances of finishing top of Group G. Now, it is essential to take six points from the final two matches, starting with hosts the UAE on Monday evening.
All eyes will be on head coach Akira Nishino’s lineup, with the Japanese heavily criticised for some eccentric choices in the match against the Garuda. The criticism will intensify if a failure to take three points from this match spells the end of Thailand’s hopes of progressing to the final qualifying round.
No more left field choices
It is almost certain that Nishino was the only person in the world who felt that lining up with Ernesto Phumipha at left-back and Ekanit Panya on the left wing was a good idea. But that was what we saw against Indonesia.
Ekanit had just come off a poor, injury-plagued season when he didn’t come close to the levels of form he reached in Chiangrai United’s Thai League winning season in 2019. It was almost as if Nishino hadn’t been paying attention and he remained stuck in October 2019, and the time when Ekanit capped a scintillating performance with the winning goal in the home match against the UAE.
It was clear from early in the game that Ekanit was off the pace and this exposed the debutant, Ernesto. The absence of Theerathon Bunmathan was always going to hurt, but the popular consensus was that Jeonbuk Hyundai’s recent loan signing Sasalak Haiprakhon would be his replacement. Instead, Nishino opted for a 31-year-old T1 journeyman, who has spent much of his career as a backup option.
Whatever Nishino’s thought processes were, they seemed to be out of step with every other Thai football observer. He must not make the same mistakes again. Sasalak’s energy on the left should ensure that he keeps his opposite number on his toes, while Ekanit should focus on a good pre-season for his club and on rediscovering the form that made him the Thai League’s top young player in 2019.
Looking to the past
While Nishino’s selection of Ekanit may have been a misguided bout of nostalgia inspired by the stirring 2-1 victory over the UAE a full 20 months ago, Thailand should still refer back to that match as evidence of the performance levels they are capable of.
That evening, they were without one of their top players in Chanathip Songkrasin, who again misses out. However, they did have the services of the influential Theerathon and Teerasil Dangda, who will not feature on Monday.
Nevertheless, Thailand have a decent record against the UAE, losing just one of their last six meetings. They have yet to beat them on Emirati soil, but this would be the perfect time to change that.
The UAE are not in the same league as regional heavyweights like Japan, South Korea and Iran. If Thailand want to reverse the growing perception that they have gone backwards since the 2018 campaign, this is the kind of match they must win.
If they do not, we will see recriminations that may mean the end of Nishino’s two-year reign and it will be back to the drawing board for a team that cannot overcome the barriers they often create for themselves.
Mabkhout the main threat
While Thailand’s record against the UAE is respectable, their record of stopping the UAE’s star striker is dismal. Ali Mabkhout has scored in each of the four matches he has played against the War Elephants, for a total of five.
The 30-year-old gave notice that he is ready to put the Thais to the sword again as he netted a double in the 4-0 rout of Malaysia on Thursday. That thumping victory and Mabkhout’s form are ominous signs ahead of this crucial fixture.
Careful thought must be given to how Thailand cut off the supply to a player who has an insatiable hunger for goals. The Thai defence again looked vulnerable on Thursday despite the War Elephants’ dominance of possession.
Mabkhout is not the only threat from the UAE, but Thailand’s chances of emerging from the match with three points will be significantly higher if they can keep this ruthless predator off the scoresheet.