Thailand’s exciting run in the AFC U23 Championships on home soil came to an end during the quarter-finals on Saturday with a 1-0 loss to Saudi Arabia. Here are a few things which the Thai fans and coaching staff can take away from this performance:
Ben Davis Adds Energy From The Bench
When Ben Davis made his competitive debut for Thailand against Iraq, the Fulham youngster produced two key passes (joint-highest in the game), made four ball recoveries and won seven fouls (more than any player on the field) - all of this in only 56 minutes. It's safe to say the Changsuek faithful were delighted with Davis's performance and look forward to seeing their new talent play again soon.
However, it wasn't until the 88th-minute, with Thailand a goal down to Saudi Arabia, that Akira Nishino called upon Davis to make the difference. Seconds after replacing Anon Amornlerdsak, Davis got past his man with a cheeky flick over the head of the onrushing opponent - earning applause from the stadium. Again, the 19-year-old looks to get on the ball and showed glimpses of his composure. Unfortunately, his dive in attempt to win the penalty may stick in the mind as well.
After the game, the majority of Thai fans sympathized and were full of praise for the team - many praising Davis's contribution. This may be the attacking midfielder's first official tournament with the War Elephant's but the supporters are already rooting for Davis.
Supachok Shines in Number 10 Role
Buriram United's Supachok Sarachat has been used as Thailand's designated number 10, operating as the side's main creative force, throughout this AFC U23 Championship run. Whereas some attacking midfielders offer defense-splitting through-balls, Supachok rips the opposition apart with his energy and direct runs. His understanding with the attacking quartet and central midfielder Sorawit Panthong, who often surges forward, is almost instinctive at times.
Supachok would receive the ball within the Thai half, pulling an opponent with him, and play a quick combination with his teammates to start a counter-attacking move. The Saudi conceded six fouls to Supachok, more than against any Thai player, and five of those happened within the Thai half.
Fantastic Performance by Al-Hamdan
Saudi Arabia were left frustrated after failing to break the Thai defense for long stretches of the game, but it was not due to any lack of effort from striker Abdullah Al-Hamdan. Saudi’s Number 9 was excellent in stretching the Thai defense all night with his runs both on and off the ball, showing a varied skill set ranging from excellent close control to a poacher’s instinct to keep the War Elephants defense on their toes.
While ultimately unable to score from open play, the striker won a controversial penalty in the late stages of the game and stepped up to score from the spot with 12 minutes of normal time left to play. His contribution was crucial in keeping the West Asian giants’ Olympic hopes alive in a tough game against the hosts.
Buriram United wonderkid Suphanat Mueanta was at it again on Saturday, testing the Saudi defense by hitting a shot against the upright just a few minutes into the game. He caused trouble on the counter-attack by cutting into dangerous areas from the left-flank. Despite being the youngest player in the squad, Thailand have consistently been able to count on him for putting in strong performances.
This is made all the more remarkable considering how much football he has played in recent months. After completing a full domestic season with Buriram where he made 23 appearances, before first joining up with the U19 side in the AFC Championship Qualifiers in November and the U23 side for the SEA Games in December. Suphanat has barely got a minute's rest since the start of the last domestic season, and with his side Buriram already set to begin their new one with Champions League qualifiers this week, the youngster may need a bit of rest to avoid burning out after the remarkable season he has had.
Thitavee's Emergence Brings New Centre-Back Competition
Centre-back Thitavee Aksornsri was selected for the U23 for the first time in this tournament, making his debut in the final group game against Iraq and was somewhat of a surprise picked to start in the quarter-final. The Police Tero defender offered fine aerial protection and is a more content playing a more covering role behind his center-back partner.
Saringkan Promsupa and Shinnaphat Leeaoh have always been rated as the first-choice center-back duo since their U19 days. With Meechok Marhasaranukun and Chatchai Sangdao previously failing to impress at the heart of the defense and Marco Ballini out injured - Thitavee's arrival meant Nishino have more options to work with and most importantly, there is now competition for the starting XI.