With just a point from five games in Asia’s ongoing third-round qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Thailand's hopes of a maiden passage to world football's extravaganza look slim. With the competition now past the midway mark, the War Elephants are staring early elimination in the face, heading into March’s double-headers.
Kiatisuk Senamuang's side may be at the bottom of the group, but they are certainly not out. And they received a massive morale-booster after lifting the 2016 AFF Championship trophy, which concluded on 17 December. Under the former international striker who is nicknamed 'Zico', the Thais excelled throughout, as they won the regional showpiece for a record fifth time, surpassing four-time winners Singapore to become the tournament's most successful team.
Senamuang's charges entered the four-week regional campaign on the back of a spirited 2-2 draw against Australia in Russia 2018 qualifying. Not surprisingly, they made light work of their group with three straight victories, including routing Indonesia 4-2 in the opener. They would continue that form in the semi-finals, dispatching hosts Myanmar 6-0 over two legs to set up a rematch with Indonesia in the final. A much-improved Indonesia caused problems for the Thais in the first leg, as they won 2-1 at home. However, Thailand bounced back to triumph 2-0 on home soil in the return to successfully defend the title.
"We dedicate this success for the new king and the [late] king," said Senamuang, under whom Thailand claimed back-to-back championships. "The win is a new year's gift for all our fans. I want to take the team forward, and I want the fans to trust me."
The competition saw ace striker Teerasil Dangda further cement his place as the team's talisman. Having scored a brace against the Socceroos as Thailand grabbed their first point in Round Three of World Cup qualifying, the 28-year-old flexed his muscles in the regional competition, smashing home six times to fire his team to the title. By doing so, Dangda made a piece of history of his own, as he tasted his first AFF Championship success, despite finishing the tournament’s top-scorer in both 2008 and 2012.
Dangda broke into the national team as a teenager in 2007 when Senamuang was the team captain. Seven years on, he established his undisputed place as the team's top goal-getter when the latter took up the national team reins. Since then, a resurgent Dangda has helped Thailand into Asia's final qualifying round for Russia 2018 before shining throughout the 2016 AFF Championship. If playing alongside Senamuang in his early days presented Dangda with an opportunity to learn directly from the goalscoring legend, then working under the guidance of the former skipper adds to his belief that the team are heading in the right direction.
"Once a football player, always a football player,” said Dangda in a previous interview with FIFA.com. “He [Senamuang] deeply knows Thai people’s habits, attitudes and the ways of football. Coach Kiatisuk has changed players' ways of playing. He pointed out both the outstanding and defective sides of each player, and the whole picture of the team. He brought players' abilities and competencies to the forefront, and shaped us to be the greatest we can be."
*While Dangda was the standout, a series of hopefuls emerged and shone, as the War Elephants retained the title. Notably, 24-year-old Siroch Chatthong and Charyl Chappuis were given surprise starting places ahead of Sarawut Masuk and Pokklaw A-nan in the decisive second leg against Indonesia. The duo duly repaid the coach's faith through their eye-catching performances, with Chatthong bagging both goals.
"We went in with Siroch and Chappuis and I am happy they did very well," said Senamuang. "The players were tired after playing so many matches in just over a month."
It remains to be seen if Thailand can revive their fortunes heading into the next Russia 2018 qualifiers against Saudi Arabia and Japan. However, with momentum from their AFF Championship performances, Senamuang’s side are more than capable of causing a surprise or two.