Football Tribe SEA Editor
Thailand are set to participate in the knockout stages of the AFC U23 Championships for the first time, and are just two wins away from qualification to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
However, the formidable West Asian giants Saudi Arabia, who emerged from a difficult group with 7 points out of a possible 9 and could be the toughest opponents the War Elephants have faced since the arrival of current coach Akira Nishino.
The supporters are riled up for this game and are ready to come out in numbers to back their team. It is reported that the 25,000 seater Thammasat Stadium has already been sold out, as fans look to help push the hosts over the edge.
Having rested a number of key players for their final group game against Bahrain, the War Elephants come into this game with a bit of freshness back.
In defense, Shinnaphat Lee-Oh is likely to come back into the side, with left-back Thitathorn and center-back Saringkan likely to remain despite playing in each game of the tournament so far. Nishino chose Peerawat to replace the underperforming Meechok at right-back – he could either stick with that selection or move a center-back such as Saringkan or Thitavee for extra defensive cover if needed.
The options get more complicated as we move into the midfield. Playmaker Sorawit Panthong is likely to return after being rested for the Iraq game, but the main issue concerns the fitness of defensive anchor Krisada Kaman, who has had little time to rest thus far. Whether Nishino drafts him back in or trusts the slightly more attacking or creative-minded Wisarut Imura in his place will likely depend on the tone he plans to set against the West Asian side.
Thailand are slightly spoiled for choice in terms of their forward line, assuming good fitness levels have been maintained. Supachok Sarachart and Supachai Jaided only played for half an hour against Iraq, so they will likely get the nod to start today. Suphanat Mueanta featured on Tuesday despite seemingly sustaining a slight injury in the game against Australia, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him rested. In his place, Nishino can call on either Anon Amornlersak, Jaroensak Wonggorn or Ben Davis, all of whom have proved their prowess during the group stage.
As often with Akira Nishino’s teams, such predictions often prove futile due to the Japanese coach’s capacity for the unexpected. Regardless, this game is likely to be a major test of both his tactical nous and the players’ mental toughness and could prove to be a critical experience for this crop of players regardless of the outcome.