Thailand have the opportunity to finish a disappointing 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign on a high when they take on Malaysia on Tuesday.
The Group G clash between the ASEAN rivals has nothing riding on it in terms of World Cup progress as both are unable to finish in the Top Two. However, any match between these local rivals has something at stake in terms of pride and bragging rights.
It might not be the high stakes final fixture that both sides would have wanted but there is still much to play for.
Nishino has everything to prove
Having seen Vietnam and the UAE destroy Indonesia 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, Thailand’s 2-2 draw with the Garuda looks even worse in retrospect. However, the UAE’s thumping 4-0 win over Malaysia puts the Thais’ 3-1 defeat to the hosts into some perspective.
Head coach Akira Nishino’s team selections have drawn much criticism and another loss here would possibly spell the end of his time in charge. A defeat would mean just two victories in eight competitive matches – all against beatable opponents.
If the 66-year-old has serious ambitions to lead the War Elephants to the 2023 Asian Cup in China, he really needs a victory to convince fans that he may still be the right man for the job. The Japanese must treat this like a vital match and not just a glorified friendly.
Three years ago, Nishino led Japan into a Round of 16 match at the World Cup against Belgium. A brave approach threatened to create an upset as the Samurai Blue took a 2-0 lead before succumbing to a late comeback. There is no clear favourite for this match and the reward is not a place in the World Cup quarterfinal but Nishino must treat it as seriously as a World Cup knockout fixture if he wants to stay in charge of Thailand.
Time to end a seven-year wait
It is ironic that despite Vietnam overtaking Thailand as the top side in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese haven’t won or scored against the Thais in their last four competitive meetings. In fact, Vietnam’s only win against Thailand in their last seven matches was a 1-0 victory in the invitational King’s Cup in June 2019.
While Thailand may be able to go toe to toe with the country to the east, it has been a tale of woe against their neighbours to the south. It was more sweet than bitter for the War Elephants when they were beaten 3-2 by the Harimau Malaya in 2014. Despite the defeat, they clinched the AFF Suzuki Cup 4-3 on aggregate.
But that loss was the first of a four-match winless streak against the Malaysians. There were two draws in the two-legged AFF Suzuki Cup semifinal in 2018, with Malaysia advancing to the final on away goals. Then, most damagingly of all, the Thais were defeated 2-1 in Kuala Lumpur in November 2019, inflicting a huge blow to hopes of progress to the third round of World Cup qualifying – hopes that the UAE extinguished last week.
Thailand also have a bit of catching up to do in the overall head-to-head with the Malaysians. In the fixture’s long history, the War Elephants have triumphed 35 times, while their rivals have recorded 41 victories. A further 35 matches have ended in draws.
Three points in this match would not only put an end to the seven-year record, but it would also take them closer to overall parity and boost morale as Thailand regroup and look forward to the next big international tournament. A loss would just provide further confirmation that the country’s football side is moving in the wrong direction.
Bring on a Buriram backline
One of the most confusing decisions made by Nishino in the first two matches was the preference for Suphan Thongsong over Pansa Hemviboon in defence.
Pansa has looked a good partner for Manuel Bihr on the occasions when they have played together but Bihr and Suphan seem to be on separate wavelengths. With Siwarak Tedsungnoen in goal and Narubadin Weerawatnodom and Sasalak Haiprakhon likely to play in the full-back positions, replacing Suphan with Pansa would mean four Buriram United players in a back five.
As international football offers such limited time for players to adapt to a different coach, a different system and different teammates, surely selecting a defence that has mostly played together for years might make sense.
Like Thailand, Malaysia look better going forward than they do at the back and the Thai defence will have to do better than they have done against Indonesia and the UAE.