Sheer physicality, abundant pace, and luck.
These are the ingredients supposedly necessary for Southeast Asian sides to take away points from Thailand. The Philippines came close. While they had the former two features, the latter one eluded them in the final 13 minutes of regulation time.
Lead Up to The Fixture
The past decade has seen the Philippines National Football Team transform into a real force to be reckoned with. They’ve emerged as Southeast Asian football heavyweights, and rightfully so. Yet, it wasn’t the tantalizing prospect of seeing two of Southeast Asia’s biggest teams fight it out for 90 minutes that made this fixture a must-see encounter.
Stakes were high for both teams in the lead up to the fixture. The Azkals had begun their AFF Suzuki Cup campaign with a 2-1 defeat to Singapore. Though you would have been wrong to write off the Philippines based on their opening fixture, as they handed Timor Leste a 7-0 drubbing in their second group stage match. The Philippines knew they needed a win to ensure they remained in the race for qualification to the next round.
For Thailand, and more specifically head coach Alexandré “Mano” Pölking, reaching the AFF Championship final would be the bare minimum target for a team boasting immense quality. Details of Mano’s head coach contract have not been disclosed. However, it is believed that the length of his tenure is pegged to the team’s performances during this competition. As such, it is imperative that Thailand qualify for the semi-finals.
When the first whistle blew, the battle on the pitch commenced, and it was an action-packed affair almost from the get-go. Both sides maintained a high tempo game, but Thailand began to dominate proceedings as the first half progressed. It became clear that the War Elephants were set up to utilize their fullbacks, who were designated to find space down the flank and whip in crosses to Teerasil Dangda.
Initial efforts by Yokohama F. Marinos player Theerathon Bunmathan were ineffective, as the left-back fluffed his crosses. Well, that changed in the 26th minute. Receiving the ball, Theerathon managed to pull away from his marker, Patrick Reichelt, with a clever piece of skill and whipped in a delicious cross that found Teerasil Dangda. The modern-day Thai football icon duly delivered a thunderous shot that rocketed into the back of the net. This goal would have special significance for him since it was his 18th in the AFF Championship, which effectively made him the all-time top scorer of the competition, overtaking former Singapore forward Noh Alam Shah.
Yet, the Philippines wouldn’t let Thailand prance around them after conceding the first goal and instead fought back in the second half. Starting the second half much stronger, it felt like a Filipino goal was about to materialize sooner rather than later, and in the 57th minute, it did. Patrick Reichelt seemed to make amends as he seized his chance and drilled home a low driven shot past Thai custodian Chatchai Budprom.
At this juncture, it dawned onto me that Singapore could possibly top Group A so long as it manages to beat Thailand or hold it to a draw in their final group stage fixture. However, that dream was dashed some 20 minutes later when the Philippines conceded an unnecessary penalty.
The goal clearly fired up the Azkals, as tensions escalated for the remainder of the 90 minutes. Minutes before the end of the first half, tensions boiled over and Azkals captain Stephan Schröck had a heated encounter with Thai centre-back Kritsada Kaman. It is worth mentioning that a number of the Philippine national team players actually play in Thai League 1 and 2. Thus, there was a level of familiarity between the opponent teams. The fiery affair was indeed a spectacle to watch, with heated arguments erupting between opposition players. A draw may have been a fair result, but it was not to be.
In the 77th minute, central defender Amani Aguinaldo, who plays for a Thai League 1 side, brought down Thitiphan Puangchan, another Thai League 1 stalwart, in the penalty box. Teerasil stepped up and he never looked like he was going to miss. He added his second of the night and his 19th one in the AFF Championship.
The result is a real shame for the Azkals, who showed real gusto to claw back from being 1-0 down at halftime.
Well, the Philippines have officially crashed out of the competition following their second loss of the AFF Suzuki Cup campaign. They currently sit in third in Group A with three points while Singapore and Thailand progress to the next round with nine points apiece.
For the Azkals, many fringe players will possibly feature in their final group stage fixture against Myanmar as they look to regroup and mount another challenge for the coveted championship in 2022 (should the plans to hold it continue).
For Thailand, this victory is pivotal. Earlier this year, the Thai National Team performed poorly during the 2022 World Cup Qualification. After progressing to the third round of qualification in the previous edition, the same was once again expected of Thailand this time around. Yet Thailand failed to register a single victory. Instead, the War Elephants were held to 2-2 and 0-0 draws by Indonesia and Vietnam, respectively.
This followed two successive defeats. The first was a 3-1 loss inflicted by the United Arab Emirates and, a week later, a 1-0 loss to Malaysia, which was their last fixture of qualification. Mano knows that a draw against either Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia is unfavourable, but he would want to avoid Vietnam at all costs. As I mentioned in the beginning: reaching the final is the bare minimum and only a thoroughly convincing victory in that final can silence critics who feel he is out of his depth.
As a side note, can we all take a moment to appreciate what a magnificent player Teerasil Dangda is? Seeing him play live was an absolute treat. Noh Alam Shah’s record 17 goals was meant to be broken, and there is no other player that truly deserves the title as all-time AFF Championship top scorer than the Thai icon himself.
Singapore should take some pointers from how the Philippines set out against the Thailand national team. Trying to overpower the Thai players with physicality and overloading the midfield was crucial in limiting the influence of Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin at times. Deploying a central midfield trio of Hariss Harun, Anumanthan and Song Ui-young may do the trick, but would Yoshida want to instead field players who have yet to be featured in this competition?
Only time will tell.