Thailand sound World Cup warning to Socceroos by winning King's Cup
Two clean sheets helped steer Thailand to King's Cup victory on Sunday night, highlighting a new-found defensive strength that will give Australia food for thought ahead of their vital World Cup qualifier in Melbourne in September.
Goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan was the hero as the Thais defended their title in the four-team invitational tournament with a shoot out victory over Belarus after a goalless draw at Rajamangala Stadium. Kawin saved twice to seal a 5-4 win on penalties after a 3-0 victory in the semifinal against North Korea on Friday.
The Socceroos have already dropped two points to the Thais in Group B, having drawn 2-2 in Bangkok last November. Former head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang quit the Thai national team after heavy defeats to Saudi Arabia and Japan in March demonstrated their defensive weaknesses.
But under new head coach Milovan Rajevac, the War Elephants have conceded just once in three games -- an added-time equaliser by the United Arab Emirates in a World Cup qualifier on June 13.
When the Serbian took over from Kiatisuk, he immediately identified fixing the leaky defence as a priority. And he will be pleased with early progress even if under-strength King's Cup opponents North Korea and Belarus didn't offer as stiff a test as they will face against Tom Rogic and Co. in Melbourne.
Nevertheless, Rajevac's focus on keeping things tighter at the back may make life harder for Ange Postecoglou's side in a game they will have to win to have a chance of automatic qualification for Russia 2018.
The draw by U.A.E. in Bangkok last month all but killed off their hopes of qualification. The Thais may have nothing but pride to play for, but they will be determined to add to the total of two points achieved in a disappointing campaign.
While their opponents may not have had their strongest teams, the Thais were also without some key players. Striker Teerasil Dangda and right-back Tristan Do both pulled out with injury, while playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin was excused, as he adapts to life with J.League club Consadole Sapporo.
Despite being hosts, Rajevac started with a conservative lineup in the final. Adisak Kraisorn was in the lone striker role in front of a five-man midfield.
Theerathon Bunmathan was pushed into a more advanced position on the left, freeing him up from the defensive duties of a full-back.
Theerathon consistently provides a creative outlet for both club and country, and Rajevac looks keen to make the most of the Muang Thong United man's attacking prowess. In Sunday's final, it was his excellent cross that Adisak headed wide in the 20th minute when he should have found the net.
The Belarussians offered a physical test in a match of few chances, and there were a number of meaty challenges in midfield.
With the game approaching the hour mark, and Thailand struggling to create, Adisak was replaced by Siroch Chatthong -- the muscular striker who put in an impressive performance against the Socceroos last November.
Belarus' attacks often resulted in speculative long-range efforts that failed to trouble Kawin. As an increasingly untidy game entered the final 20 minutes, Belarus picked up three yellow cards in quick succession for cynical challenges on Siroch and Thitiphan Puangchan (twice).
Thailand's play became disjointed and there were few of the intricate passages of passing that became a feature under Kiatisuk. However, much of that could be blamed on a poor playing surface.
With both sides failing to find the net over 90 minutes, the game went straight to a penalty shootout.
Kawin made two fine stops to allow Siroch to smash home the winning penalty for an unspectacular but morale-boosting triumph ahead of the Group B matches at home to Iraq and away to Australia.
As coach of Ghana in the 2010 World Cup, Rajevac is not unfamiliar with the Socceroos. The game in South Africa ended in a 1-1 draw and he will be confident of getting another result in Melbourne in 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