Milovan Rajevac promotes Kawin to captain as Thailand earn respect
New Thailand head coach Milovan Rajevac believes his side can approach the final two matches of their Group B World Cup qualifying campaign with confidence after holding the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Bangkok on Tuesday night.
Rajevac came agonisingly close to making history in his first competitive match in charge as the War Elephants conceded the equaliser deep into added time.
Mongkol Tossakrai's 68th-minute strike had given a severely depleted Thailand side the lead as they pushed for their first-ever win in the final group stage of World Cup qualifying at the 16th attempt. Unfortunately, the Thais fell just short as a spell of sustained pressure from the visitors eventually told when Ahmed Mabkhout grabbed the equaliser three minutes into added time.
But former Ghana boss Rajevac declared himself "proud" of the performance as his players put in a tireless shift despite missing many of their star men.
Here are three things we saw on Rajevac's competitive debut:
1. Focus on formation almost pays off
Rajevac had pledged to improve the defence to prevent the loss of soft goals that has been a problem throughout the qualifying campaign. In the absence of the injured Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda, Tristan Do, Theerathon Bunmathan and Koravit Namwiset, the Serbian was limited in what he could do, and he set up the team in a 4-2-3-1 formation that seemed designed to protect the makeshift defence, rather than provide attacking impetus.
On their best days, former boss Kiatisuk Senuamuang's Thailand side had pace, power and creativity in the wide areas through Theerathon and Do, while Chanathip's dribbling skills could turn defence into attack in an instant. Denied all three players, Rajevac tried to keep a more stable core in the middle and better positional sense in all areas.
However, as early as the ninth minute, a familiar lack of concentration almost gifted the U.A.E. the lead. Abdelaziz Sanqour's low cross was volleyed just wide by Mabkhout, and the way the striker ghosted in to the danger zone was a concern.
In the 18th minute, Mabkhout again got beyond the Thai defence as Omar Abdulrahman found him with an excellent cross. The striker looked certain to score but headed over.
But the hosts settled, and there was better defending later in the half when several attacks were crowded out.
As the U.A.E. pushed hard for the equaliser late in the game, skipper Kawin Thamsatchanan again provided the last line of defence when he beat out Tareq Ahmed's powerful strike in the 89th minute. One minute later, the keeper made an even better save as he pushed Abdulrahman's free kick wide.
But the pressure finally gave the visitors their reward when Mabkhout stole in between two defenders and side-footed past Kawin.
On the whole, the defence looked focused and determined. Rajevac will hope to harness the positives for the final two games of the campaign -- at home to Iraq and away to Australia.
"I feel proud, but I'm sorry we couldn't make history," said Rajevac. "We were missing a few players and we played against an excellent team with a lot of experience, but we proved that we could play competitively against them."
2. There are substitutes for class
The replacements for Thailand's top stars may not always have looked like having the influence of their absent teammates. But the fact that they got a positive result without them demonstrates some depth in the Thailand talent pool.
Kiatisuk became known for his loyalty to a core of players, and it was usually possible to predict his starting XI with reasonable accuracy.
Although there were changes forced on the new man in charge, there were some very positive signs from those who came in. Central midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan fell out of favour under Kiatisuk, but gave an energetic performance.
Sanrawat Dechmitr was another who found himself out in the cold under Kiatisuk, yet the Bangkok United midfielder impressed n the playmaker role vacated by Chanathip.
Central defender Chalermpong Kerdkaew has finally been given his chance at the age of 30. He showed no signs of being overawed by the occasion, much like defensive partner Pansa Hemviboon, another latecomer to the international scene at 26 years old.
Kiatisuk's focus on youth and the same core group of players certainly proved successful to a large extent, but it looks like Rajevac will cast his net a little wider.
3. Kawin stakes claim for captaincy
The absence of regular captain Theerathon and occasional skipper Teerasil opened the door for Kawin to take the armband. Under a new regime, there are big decisions to be made and who to entrust with the captaincy may be one that Rajevac is considering.
Kawin showed that the role inspired him as he made several outstanding saves towards the end of the game. The 27-year-old has more than half-a-century of caps and has consistently proved himself to be one of the top goalkeepers in the region.
Given Theerathon's recent disciplinary issues with his club Muang Thong United, it would not be surprising if Rajevac was considering making the change a more permanent one.
"As you know, Theerathon was absent for today's game through injury, so we couldn't use him," Rajevac told ESPN FC. "I decided that Kawin was the best option for the captaincy because has the necessary leadership for the role and I was very happy with his performance."
Rajevac's next challenge will be the King's Cup invitation tournament in July before the final two Group B matches in August and September.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK