Thailand secured their record sixth AFF Cup trophy on New Years’ Day, defeating Indonesia 6-2 on aggregate to bring the trophy home. Here are five memorable moments from the War Elephants’ triumph in Singapore.
Reinvigorated Chanathip Captains Thailand to Glory
After missing the 2018 AFF Cup through club obligations and the most recent World Cup Qualiying campaign due to injury, Chanathip Songkrasin returned to take the armband for the War Elephants. The midfielder ended the tournament with four goals from six appearances and deservedly took home his third MVP award. Chanathip’s quality with the ball is evident; however, there was something different with this latest “version” of Chanathip we saw in Singapore.
Despite Thailand’s huge advantage heading into the second leg of the final, the fire in Chanathip’s eyes still burned. The J.League star maintained the same level of determination and hunger he had shown all tournament; chasing every loose ball and tracking back in defence. With more senior players such as Teerasil Dangda and Theerathon Bunmathan in the squad, one wonders if Chanathip was the right choice to captain the team. Luckily for Thai fans, Chanathip proved, by leading through example and in his own way, he too can lead the War Elephants to glory.
Mano’s First Major Trophy
Head coach Mano Polking has been among the most highly rated managers in Thai football for a considerable period of time, known for playing attractive attacking football and transforming Bangkok United from bottom-half stragglers to one of the biggest clubs in the country over his seven year spell with the Angels.
However, the biggest mark against the German-Brazilian tactician has been his failure to win a major trophy across his nine-year managerial career and his poor record in finals – until now. The catharsis and relief was visible as Thailand put four goals past Indonesia in the first leg, virtually sealing the tie and Mano’s first piece of silverware in the process. Winning the AFF Suzuki Cup will disarm the critics of their biggest weapon, but more importantly the manner of victory emphasised the traits Mano already prefers to be known for – his exciting, attacking football and his ability to get the best out of his players.
Identity Restored, With a Little Extra
During Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang’s terrific tenure in charge between 2014 and 2017, Thailand not only won trophies, but did so in an entertaining style; the “Thai tiki-taka” goal against Vietnam in Hanoi a small sample of the “Golden Generation’s” possession-based, free-flowing football. But despite Zico’s success, in terms of regional results and style of play, Thailand’s identity was sacrificed for a different approach. For various reasons, Milovan Rajevac, Sirisak Yodyardthai and Akira Nishino failed to restore the same essence that won Thailand many praises.
Under Mano Polking, however, the same attacking mentality has returned, as evidenced by the team’s 103 chances created – more than any other nation at the 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup. However, going undefeated and keeping six clean sheets from eight matches also points at Mano Polking’s ability to tighten up the defence, and their fluency in switching between a number of systems gives Thailand a tactical flexibility not seen before.
Thanawat and Kritsada’s Emergence
Thailand fielded two U23 players on route to their sixth AFF Cup victory, and both played major roles in the side’s success.
Despite playing as a defensive midfielder at club level, Kritsada Kaman emerged as Thailand’s most impressive and reliable central defender at the tournament. His comfort on the ball and excellence in build-up was coupled with accomplished and tenacious defending which saw the whole region sit up and take notice. He was rightly singled out for praise by head coach Mano Polking after the final, as his presence was crucial in allowing the War Elephants’ game plan to work.
On the other hand, Thailand has no shortage of top quality central midfielders, so the fact that Thanawat Suengchitthawon managed to book a place regular in the starting eleven is a fairly impressive achievement on its own. After being the War Elephants’ shining light at the AFC U23 qualifiers in Mongolia in October, he rightfully earned his call-up to the first team. While he has plenty of other technical and physical ‘number eights’ to compete with, his vision, fluency on the ball and penchant for venomous long-range efforts make him a top pick for the War Elephants.
With the SEA Games, Asian Games and AFC U23 Champions coming up over the horizon, the emergence of these two top talents gives Thailand a welcome and much-needed boost.
Depth of Talent and New Possibilities
In the final group stage game, Thailand’s “rotated squad” made quite an impression when they dismantled hosts Singapore 2-0. With the likes of Teerasil or Theerathon already into their early thirties, Thailand must begin to plan ahead; and judging from the positive contributions from the likes of Supachai Jaided and Worachit Kanitsribumphen, perhaps today’s bench could be the ones Thailand depend on in the future. As a contrasting example, the Indonesian national team’s performance fell off the cliff after reaching the 2016 finals partly due to the Garuda’s lack of emerging talent to replace the declining seniors; until Shin Tae-Yong’s rebuild saw the side qualify for the final once again in the 2020 edition.
Fortunately, in Thailand’s case, a rebuild may not be needed. Players like Supachok Sarachart (23) and Kritsada Kaman (22) were key members in Mano’s title-winning squad; therefore, it’s reasonable to expect a smooth continuation from the current generation to the next.