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 By Paul Murphy

Teerasil Dangda must step up to help Thailand move closer to Russia 2018

Thailand striker Teerasil Dangda
Teerasil must lead from the front if Thailand are to get a positive result against Iraq in Tehran.

Thailand face their biggest game in recent memory when they play Iraq in Tehran on Thursday, needing just a point to guarantee passage into the final stage of AFC qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

It has been 15 long years since Thailand's head coach Kiatisuk 'Zico' Senamuang was part of the side who earned a 2-2 draw at home to Lebanon, securing a place in Asia's last round of qualifying for the 2002 finals.

Even if they lose their final Group F game, the Thais may progress to the next stage as one of the best runners up -- or if Iraq fail to beat Vietnam next week.

Here are three star players aiming to take the War Elephants a step closer to Russia 2018.

1. A busy night for Kawin?

Singaporeans may make a case for Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny but Thailand's goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan is considered by many to be the best in Southeast Asia. His imposing presence has been key to his country's fine form over the past two years and he is likely to be called upon frequently in Tehran.

With his club side Muang Thong United, he has conceded just one goal in four Premier League of Thailand (PLT) games this year, so his confidence should be high. With the onus on Iraq to win the game, Thailand must ensure that they defend strongly and Kawin will expect to be kept busy by the likes of veteran striker Younis Mahmoud.

With just a point required, Kiatisuk must think carefully about how he sets the team up to play in front of Kawin.

Kawin must perform heroics in goal to frustrate an Iraqi side who also control their own destiny.

Defender Mika Chunuonsee - who misses out in Tehran but has been selected for Sunday's friendly at home to South Korea - believes that Thailand will be cautious but will still play to win. He told ESPN FC, "Zico will set up a team that is hard to beat, that's for sure. It will be a defensive-minded team but, believe me, Thailand will go there for the three points and not just settle for a draw. I'm sure it will be a cautious and safe game plan but we will have enough attacking players on the field to win the game."

2. Test for Tanaboon

Defender Tanaboon Kesarat has made a fine start to his Muang Thong United career this season but he will have to improve on his recent international form as he tries to help his country to a memorable result.

When the War Elephants faced what should have been their easiest Group F fixture against Chinese Taipei in Bangkok in November, Tanaboon was caught cold early on when Yen Yaki got in front of him at a corner to head home. There followed a generally chaotic defensive performance before the Thais eventually won 4-2.

Tanaboon, who can play in central defence or the holding midfield role, was then one of the poorer performers in Thailand's disappointing showing at the AFC U23 Championship in January. While the Thais defended poorly as a team, Tanaboon endured a particularly wretched game and was arguably at fault for three of the goals conceded in the 4-0 defeat to Japan.

Thailand's Tanaboon Kesarat
Tanaboon will be aiming to translate his club form onto the international stage to help Thailand's cause.

Tanaboon was perhaps affected by the poor form of his club side BEC Tero Sasana last year and a move to Muang Thong may be what is needed to rebuild his confidence. Thai fans will hope to see the composed and elegant defender that Tanaboon can be and not the player who has been guilty of losing concentration in recent international matches.

He and his teammates in defence will be relieved that Justin Meram - he tormented the Thais in Bangkok last year - has not been included in the Iraq squad. But Tanaboon will still have to stay composed in what will be challenging conditions.

3. Teerasil's big moment

Teerasil Dangda has been Thailand's leading player for several years and this may be the time for him to write his name into the history books. The Muang Thong United striker has three goals in this campaign and knows how to score in Tehran, having netted in the War Elephants' 2-1 defeat to Iran in an Asian Cup qualifier in 2013.

At 27 years old, Teerasil knows that this may his best opportunity to make a big impact in World Cup qualifying. He scored a fine volley against Ratchaburi to grab his first goal of the Thai season two weeks ago so he should be in a confident frame of mind.

Teerasil has already scored twice during Thailand's 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Teerasil will have to use all of his experience to lead the attack effectively and provide the cutting edge that they will need. It could help that he may be playing alongside new Muang Thong teammates Chanathip 'Messi J' Songkrasin, Tanaboon, Peerapat Notchaiya, Tristan Do and Adisak Kraisorn, who all joined Muang Thong from BEC Tero in the close season.

While the new men have had just a few club games alongside the likes of Kawin, Sarach Yooyen and Teerasil, early signs have been positive, with Muang Thong sitting top of the PLT table after three wins in their first four games.

"I'm sure it will benefit both Muang Thong and Thailand because you will always get better and have a better understanding by playing with the same players week in, week out," added Bangkok United's Chunuonsee

Thai fans will be praying that Kawin, Tanaboon and Teerasil return to Bangkok with another round of World Cup qualifying fixtures to look forward to later this year.

Paul Murphy has lived in Thailand for nine years, contributing to ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express (UK) sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK


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