The red and blue corner of Thailand and Singapore are set to go toe to toe two years after slugging it out in the final of the last AFF Suzuki Cup. The Group B opponents meet next week and, for once, Thailand must feel more confident given they can muster a full squad. For both countries it will be their first tournament match which is likely to define their future progress. With pressure and expectations weighing in from both ends, the teams will be desperate to hit the shoddy poor Singapore Sports Hub ground running.
Thailand’s pre-tournament form has been impressive at the age group level. Their Under 19 team, which is also the backbone of the senior side, just missed out on Asian Games bronze. More heartbreak followed for the Under 19s as they missed out on next year’s Under 20 World Cup finals. Even after convincing victories over Yemen, Myanmar and Iran, the young side failed to progress after losing by a single goal to Uzbekistan. Their senior team have now completed three friendlies in order to prepare for the big clash. Starting off with a solid 3-0 win over a poor-looking Philippines side, they went onto beat newly promoted Thai Premier League side Nakhon Ratchasima by a single goal and finished with a highly impressive 2-0 victory over New Zealand.
PTT Rayong’s Kirati Kieawsombat got the Thai ball rolling just before halftime when he pounced on a scuffed attempt, and the game was finished with Buriram United player Adisak Graisorn’s first touch on seventy seven minutes after coming on as substitute. Why they chose to play a team so different in style from those they will face at the AFF Suzuki Cup is a mystery, but the War Elephants took momentum and confidence away from a match in which several of their first choice players were rested against a team sitting 34 places higher in the FIFA ranking.
Singapore’s Asian Games team failed to navigate the group stages, coming third in Group C and two points from progression. But they finished the tournament with a morale-boosting 2-1 win against group winners Palestine. Their warmup matches have been far more meaningful than Thailand’s: a 2-0 defeat away at Bahrain was followed up by their second win this year with a 2-0 victory over Laos last week, and they finished off preparations with a spirited 4-2 win against a Cambodia who themselves just failed to qualify for the full tournament when finishing third behind Myanmar and Laos last month.
Thailand’s chaotic friendly defeat to China was inevitable after the disastrous organisation that saw only two outfield substitutes. But Singapore won’t be feeling over confident after their earlier warm up matches either. When you are winning two nil against minnows Maccau, you do not expect to be pinned back and have to settle for a draw which crowned a frustrating four game sequence. Beating Papua New Guinea 2-1 on September 6th is hardly a cause for celebration, especially when three days later they were held to a scoreless home draw by Hong Kong. Things took a turn for the worse a month later when they lost the away game 2-1, four days before the Macau comeback.
The AFF Suzuki Cup Final in 2012 had passed Thailand by before they had chance to collect themselves. On the artificial surface of Jalan Besar the Thais were soon on the back foot after an early penalty and struggled to come to terms with the Singaporean energy and movement. They seemed to have rescued a valuable away draw with twenty five minutes left thanks to Chonburi’s Adul. But things took a sour turn as five minutes later they were behind again. The third goal which was conceded on injury time left The War Elephants with too much to do on a shocking Supalachasai surface three days later, despite a phenomenal atmosphere from their fans. The tournament’s golden boot winner Teerasil Dangda was well-marshalled over both legs and only Kirati was able to make a breakthrough in the Bangkok match. This time Dangda won’t be available, so a team ethic will need to replace reliance on a star striker.
The Lions and War Elephants face off in the tournament’s fourth game on Sunday and most onlookers will expect a draw as both teams will keep their powder dry for later battles. But, if either side decide to go for a knockout blow, the rest of the competition will be sent a powerful message of intent.