BANGKOK – Three-time champions Thailand begin their quest to reclaim a title that has eluded them for a decade when they face the Philippines – once the region’s whipping boys – in their opening Group A match of the Asean Football Championship today.
Not so long ago, the Thai side, whose last triumph in the biennial tournament came in 2002, could reckon on an almost guaranteed win against the Philippines, a country where soccer is not the No 1 sport.
However, the two nations have endured contrasting fortunes on the football pitch in recent times. The Thais’ alarming decline has seen them plunge to a new low of 152nd spot in Fifa’s rankings. The Philippines now lie a full nine spots above them.
Thailand’s cause has not been helped by a lack of match practise, with few fixtures played over the past eight months since their elimination from World Cup qualifying. When they did get on the pitch during the build-up to the tournament, many questioned the merit of fixtures against such lowly opponents as Bhutan and Bangladesh.
So the Thai side coached by Germany’s Winfried Schaefer has plenty to of doubts to answer in an opening game. They can ill afford any slip-ups if they are to avoid a repeat of their exit at the group stage exit two years ago. The 62-year-old German coach announced his final 22-man squad on the eve of the fixture at Rajamangala National stadium, with Chonburi FC forward Pipob On-mo included in the list after initially withdrawing from the team with an injury.
Former Cameroon manager Schaefer said he expected nothing less than a win against a Philippines side full of naturalised players.
“We’ll field our best players, who are in great shape physically, and go for maximum points. The Philippines have adopted many foreign players and they are strong side physically.
“However, our players have had good training and all are determined to win the trophy for Thai people. I don’t’ see any reason why we cannot do that,” said Schaefer, who was expected to ask Muang Thong United forward Teerasil Dangda to spearhead the home side’s attack.
Schaefer said facing the Filipinos was no longer a simple task, but he remained confident his charges would get their campaign off to a winning start.
“The first game in any tournament is very important but not easy. We have to give 100 percent against any team in this competition. Every team prepared well for the event. The Filipinos themselves have trained together over the past three to four months.
“However, I have faith with my team. The players have trained very well and looked sharper in front of goal. I want to see our fans turn up at the venue in huge numbers to support the team. I’m sure that will help the team play to their maximum,” said the German, whose side also faces old foes Vietnam and Myanmar in the group stage. – Kitinan Sanguansak