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Soccer Friday: Socceroos’ draw shows that Thailand is ready to defend AFF title…

by November 18, 2016 General

It was a result that brightened the hearts of a grieving nation, while reinstating the swagger of its talented soccer team on the eve of their Southeast Asian title defense.

Thailand’s stunning performance in outplaying Asian champion Australia in Tuesday night’s 2-2 draw in Bangkok came before Kiatisuk Senamuang’s side traveled to Manila for the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup.

Its first earned point of the final phase of the AFC World Cup qualification won’t revive its faded Russia 2018 hopes, but it is likely to strike trepidation into the hearts of Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia, which it faces in Group A of the regional tournament, starting on Saturday.

The bold display at a raucous Rajamangala Stadium is likely to be talked about for years, even after the low-key buildup to the match because of the passing last month of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Once the game began, the War Elephants showed the spirit and skill that their beloved late monarch would have been proud of. They bounced back after conceding an early penalty to stun the Socceroos by taking the lead early in the second half when striker Teerasil Dangda completed his double.

Senamuang can take many of the things that worked against the Aussies and implement them at the Philippine National Stadium. The bold 3-5-2 formation carried an element of risk, but after a nervous opening quarter of an hour, the Thais settled down to show their best form in more than a year.

Playing the super-sized Siroch Chatthong up front, alongside the more refined Teerasil, gave the Thais the attacking bite they had craved earlier in the third round of qualifying, having lost their previous four matches, while scoring just a single goal. Siroch almost grabbed a late winner when he went one-on-one with Mat Ryan, but the Valencia keeper made himself big to spare Australia’s blushes.

The visitor was clumsy in its attempts to contain raw diamond Siroch, who plied his trade this season with second-tier Thai club Ubon UMT United. In five international appearances, he’s yet to score a goal, but that surely will come in the AFF Championship.

Teerasil’s natural gifts in almost a decade with the national team earned him a much publicized loan spell with La Liga club, Almeria, in 2014, but this was one of his most memorable nights for his country, as he took his goal tally against Australia to three in his last three matches, having scored in the 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat in Brisbane in 2011.

With Teerasil and Siroch keeping the Aussie central defenders occupied, 2014 AFF hero Chanathip Songkrasin created havoc in his playmaker role. His defense-splitting pass that helped set up Teerasil’s opening goal was world class, leaving England-based Aaron Mooy and Brad Smith red faced.

Thailand will also be heartened by the energy and creative output of wing-backs Theerathon Bunmathan and Tristan Do, who were involved in both goals and dropped back into a five-man defense when Australia had the ball.

Fatigue could be a factor as Thailand changed gears from AFC to AFF and adjusted to different conditions in Bocaue, near Manila. Only four days separate their fifth World Cup qualifier and their first game in the Suzuki Cup. There is also the danger of a feeling of anticlimax and a reduction in intensity.

But the Thais have too much class and depth to be concerned about not getting the required results to breeze through to the knockout stages of the Southeast Asian championship. They are, perhaps, fortunate that Saturday’s opening game comes against Indonesia, which will be playing its first competitive match after the end of their year-long FIFA ban. The reality is that Thailand could probably rest several players and still comfortably get past the rusty Merah Putih.

It is easy to see why the diminutive 23-year-old is reportedly moving to the Japanese J2 club Consadole Sapporo, on loan from Muangthong United next season.

So, the stars are aligned for Thailand to win their record fifth ASEAN crown, surpassing Singapore with whom they share four titles.

And when the Singaporeans face Kiatisuk’s men on Nov. 22, the Thais could well be back to their Rajamangala best, given time to properly acclimatize to their Philippine surroundings.

It is difficult to see anyone at the AFF Championship mounting a serious challenge against Thailand, who gave hints on Tuesday night that they are ready to take the next step in their global soccer evolution.

Jason Dasey is senior editor of ESPN FC, Indonesia’s most popular English-language soccer website with a Southeast Asia edition. Twitter: @ESPNFC_ID