Three Points: False dawn for Azkals as Thais hunt down fourth ASEAN title
Thailand were in a rampant mood at the Rajamangala Stadium in downtown Bangkok where they trounced a weary Philippines side 3-0 to seal their place in the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup final. We walk you through the game and identify three key points where Kiatisuk Senamuang's men clinched an epic battle.
1. Mongkol turned Azkals defenders pale white
If this was Chanathip Songkrasin's coming of age party, somebody must have forgotten to send an invite to his teammate Mongkol Tossakrai, who was absolutely phenomenal on the right of the Thai midfield.
Left back Kroekrit Thaweekarn -- the two goal hero -- was fantastic too. But it was Mongkol who stole the show with a brutal display of speed, aggression and drive.
Up against Azkals left-back Daisuke Sato, Mongkol teased his opponent like a hyena rounding up his next meal. He forced him into foolish tackles which earned him a yellow card in the 22nd minute. 11 minutes later, coach Thomas Dooley took him off, knowing that his defender was losing the plot against the wing wizard who had barely broken a sweat.
Martin Steuble moved from midfield to cover Sato's position. Within two minutes, he too received a yellow card for lunging in on Mongkol. All the winger did was to get up on his feet, give a cheeky grin and get on with his game.
With 52 touches, three shots at goal and seven fouls won, Chanathip and Charyl Chappuis have to be credited for their excellent work as makeshift attackers. But it was Mongkol who stood tall like a giant amongst the 22 men on the pitch.
Messi Jay won the plaudits for his opening goal and wizardry on the ball while Chappuis and Prakit Deeprom were exquisite in their passing. But Mongkol was in a class of his own as Thais marched into the finals in search of that elusive fourth ASEAN title to join Singapore as proud holders of the record.
2. Philippines given a taste of their own medicine
The first leg in Manila saw Philippines use their size advantage to intimidate and put Thailand off their stride. But the War Elephants were ready to give Dooley's men a taste of their own medicine with midfielders Sarach Yooyen and Prakit Deeprom giving as good as they got, much to the home fans' delight.
Resembling a boxing match, Thailand stunned the heavy-hitting Filipinos by going full steam from the first whistle: from Chanathip refusing to go down despite being tackled thrice in quick succession to Tanaboon Kesarat squaring up to Paul Mulders to let him know whose house he was visiting.
Thailand were at home and they were keen stamp their authority on Dooley's men. Kiatisuk Senamuang's side won 88.9% of their tackles. They were rarely troubled by Phil Younghusband and his teammates who had only six shots at goal. The Thais, on the other hand, had 18 shots raining in from all angles.
With Stueble having to cover at left-back, the Filipino attack stuttered. Despite the introduction of Patrick Reichelt and Mark Hartmann, nothing quite worked for the visitors on a night when the Thais were winning every second ball and had the wind in their sails.
The loss means Philippines have not beaten the Thais for eight games in a row. The boys from Manila will have to wait another two years to have a chance of ending their dismal record against the Tom Yam brigade.
3. Kiatisuk's false no.9 system was pure magic
It doesn't matter who Thailand face in the final. If Kiatisuk's youngsters play the way they did against Philippines, nobody in this region can match them.
Everyone was puzzled with Kiatisuk's insistence on putting faith in Kirati Keawsombut and Adisak Kraisorn as the recognised strikers coming into the tournament. But what did we know? It was only because they never quite needed one to begin with.
Kiatisuk, himself a top striker in his heyday, was forced into playing Chanathip as a false no.9 at the Rajamangala Stadium. It turned out to be a masterstroke with the Thais producing their best match of the tournament so far.
Chanathip took responsibility and scored Thailand's first goal in the sixth minute. But without a recognized target man to aim for, Prakit, Chappuis and Mongkol were committed to getting into the box while Kroekrit Thaweekarn, Perapat Notechaiya and Naruebodin Weerawattanodom spent most of their time rampaging down the flanks to peg the Azkals defence back.
This move frustrated the visitors. They must have been seeing stars as they hoofed the ball clear, only to see a wave of blue shirts coming at them within seconds. Even Phil Younghusband tracked back to try and win the ball and help out his teammates. But the difference in class was too apparent on the night.
Come Dec. 17 and 20 in the final, Thailand's biggest enemy will be themselves. If they play to their true potential, Kiatisuk will go down in history as the first person to win the AFF Suzuki Cup as both a player (1996, 2000, 2002) and as a manager.
Four-time champions and an individual paragraph engraved in ASEAN football annuls, a fairy tale awaits the man they endearingly call Zico in the Kingdom.
ESPN FC editor Kelvin Leong is a former media officer for Singapore and ex-regional editor of ESPNSTAR.com. Twitter: @KelvinLeong29.