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 By John Duerden

Thailand can learn lessons of U23 failure to defend Suzuki Cup title

Kiatisuk Senamuang has done a brilliant job for Thailand so far but still has much to learn on the international stage.

Thailand went to Qatar and the U23 AFC Championships with high hopes of success but fell at the first hurdle. How the powers that be in Bangkok would define success is an issue up for debate but it is fair to say that it would not have been coming home with only two points from three group games.

But all is not lost with a busy year ahead for Thai football. The team were never likely to finish in the top three in the tournament, ahead of the likes of South Korea and Japan, hosts Qatar and defending champions, Iraq. Thailand are simply not ready to challenge the cream of the continent consistently. It would have been nice to get out of the group, both in terms of competitive experience for the youngsters and overall confidence, but there are other issues to focus on. Coach Kiatisuk Senamuang, in charge of both the U23 and senior side, learnt plenty in Qatar.

The first priority for Thailand is, of course, the game against Iraq on neutral soil in Tehran on March 24. A draw there, and a place in the third round of AFC qualification for the 2018 World Cup is assured. A defeat, and then there is the likely lottery of trying to be one of the best four runners-up who join the eight group winners. To be part of this delightful dozen is what Thai football wants and needs.

Just getting there is the main thing but winning the group would be special and send out a signal to the rest of Asia that the Thais are a force to be reckoned with. Then would come 10 big qualifiers against the elite. It would be ideal for the country's development. High-pressure matches against the likes of Japan, South Korea, Iran and others. Games that the War Elephants may not be expected to win but would be able to pick up points and become genuinely battle-hardened.

Chanathip showed his class in Qatar but could not take his team into the next round.

Do that and the year is already a success -- well, almost. It will also be necessary for Thailand to win a tournament too: the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup. Few would surely argue that the country is not the best in Southeast Asia but that has to be proven once again. Get to the final round of qualification for 2018 and win the regional bash in December and the year will be one to remember.

And the events of Qatar should help that happen. After all, this is a developmental tournament. If the lessons of Qatar help Thailand get the result they need against Iraq, and then defeat ASEAN allcomers later in the year, then the AFC U23 will not have been a failure but just a necessary step.

For coach Zico, the lesson will surely be the need to be tight at the back, making Thailand harder to beat. Going forward, the War Elephants have some silky players, not least Chanathip 'Messi Jay' Songkrasin, but were too often exposed against Saudi Arabia, North Korea and, especially, Japan. It should go without saying, but this was a tough group, with three teams all targeting the pointy end of the tournament and, for the most part, Thailand matched them.

Charyl Chappuis has not kicked a football since early 2015 due to a long-term injury.

At the back though there were issues. The team can struggle in the transition from attacking to defending, with players out of position. This was exploited by a classy Japan side on a number of occasions. There is sometimes a lack of discipline and organisation. Creativity going forward and speedy attacks are not usually a problem all over Thai football, but getting players to grind out a result away from home is a string that needs to be added to the Bangkok bow. Winning ugly, or just not losing when the odds are against you, is something that the good teams need to be able to do. At the moment, it is a skill that coach Zico needs to try and instil in his players.

In Qatar, there was a lack of leadership in the team. That is why Thailand look much better with Charyl Chappuis in midfield. The Swiss-born star has had injury issues but adds much needed energy into the middle, keeps the ball well and is an outlet for under pressure defenders. He drives the team forward and his mere presence seems to give colleagues confidence.

Too old for the recent trip to West Asia, the 24 year-old, who helped Switzerland win the 2009 U17 World Cup, has the maturity to lead the Elephants onto a fantastic 2016, despite the results in January. There is plenty of opportunity during the rest of 2016 for Thailand to show that Qatar was not a failure.

Asian champions Australia built on the experience of three defeats at the 2014 World Cup to lift the regional trophy on home soil six months later. Thailand can follow in their footsteps, but only if they properly learn the lessons of Doha.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.


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