Chanathip doubtful for Thailand's AFC U23 opener vs. Saudi Arabia
Thailand kick off their AFC U23 championship campaign against 2013 runners-up Saudi Arabia in Group B on Wednesday but preparations have been dealt a major blow with captain Chanathip 'Messi J' Songkrasin suffering from illness.
Head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang has taken a strong squad to Qatar and named Chanathip -- the BEC Tero Sasana playmaker -- as the man to lead the side in their attempt to make it out of a tough group, also featuring Japan and North Korea.
Chanathip is suffering from a heavy cold as the team makes its final preparations for the opening match. But Kiatisuk remains hopeful that his skipper will shake off the bug in time to start the game against the Saudis.
The Thais have been boosted by the return of defenders Tanaboon Kesarat and Tristan Do from injury. Like their BEC Tero teammate Chanathip, they have been regulars in Thailand's World Cup qualifying campaign. Ratchaburi forward Nattawut Sombatyotha -- who has an ankle problem -- is the only other squad member whose selection is in doubt due to injury.
Thailand warmed up for the championship with a 1-0 friendly win over Yemen on Friday and Chanathip was satisfied with the outcome. "The victory against Yemen has boosted our confidence," he told the Bangkok Post after the game. "For us, it didn't matter that it was a warm-up match, we made a serious effort to win it."
While the tournament also offers a route into the 2016 Rio Olympics, Kiatisuk preferred to keep expectations modest, by targeting a place in the knockout stages rather than the top three. "We want to do our best and progress to the next round. That's our target," Kiatisuk told AFC.com.
Getting past regional heavyweights Japan and Saudi Arabia, as well as the dangerous North Koreans, is a big ask but there is plenty of international experience in the War Elephants' squad.
Full-backs Peerapat Notechaiya and Narubadin Weerawatnodom have more than 10 caps for the senior team so there is a wealth of experience in defence.
In midfield, there may not be the same level of experience but there are plenty of options. If fit, Chanathip will be expected to provide the creative input and Muang Thong United's tough-tackling Thitiphan Puangchan, Port FC's Pakora Prempak and Army United's Thossawat Limwannasathian have all earned full caps.
It is in attack where the Thais may struggle most. Port FC's new signing Pinyo Inpinit gained much first-team experience at Police United but is not a prolific scorer. Muang Thong's Chayawat Srinawong -- who has just spent the season on loan at PTT Rayong -- looks the best option as a goal scorer but it remains to be seen if Kiatisuk feels he will be the best fit for the team.
Kiatisuk acknowledged some weaknesses in attack after the Yemen friendly when he told the Bangkok Post, "We were not sharp enough in front of goal and missed a number of chances. We were simply unable to convert our chances but the aim was to win the match and we succeeded in achieving that."
The Saudis are not short of senior team experience either, with Al-Ittihad winger Fahad Al-Muwallad the most likely danger man, with 28 full caps to his name.
The tournament will be another test of Thai football's development after three years of steady progress under Kiatisuk. Olympic qualification may be a step too far but getting out of Group B would be a major achievement. Victory over the Saudis would be the perfect start before the clash with Japan on Saturday.