BANGKOK — Australia would be well advised not to take a more defensive Thailand lightly as they attempt to seal automatic qualification from Group B in Tuesday’s final matchday of the World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.
The Socceroos’ 2-0 defeat to Japan on Thursday has left them in a precarious position, with a crushing win over the Thais their best chance of booking their place in Russia next year.
They will need to overturn a two-goal deficit compared to Saudi Arabia to avoid being subjected to the lottery of the playoffs.
The Saudis, tied on 16 points in second spot in Group B, will host Japan after the Socceroos’ clash in Melbourne.
But Ange Postecoglou’s side are unlikely to find Thailand in an accommodating mood as they attempt to salvage pride at the end of a disappointing campaign.
The War Elephants have collected a miserable two points from their nine games, but one of those was won against the Socceroos, who were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw in Bangkok last November.
And since the Thais lost 4-0 to Japan in Saitama in April, there has been a change in management that has given the Southeast Asians a more solid look at the back.
Milovan Rajevac took over after Kiatisuk Senamuang’s resignation and quickly made better defending a priority. Only a lapse in added time at home to the United Arab Emirates in June prevented Thailand from claiming their first win and clean sheet of the campaign, though the 1-1 draw did give them their second point.
At home to Iraq on Thursday, it was again a late goal that did the damage as Saad Abudulameer’s 85th-minute penalty gave the visitors a 2-1 win in Bangkok. By that point, the Thais were down to 10 men, and it was a needlessly conceded penalty that handed the visitors three points.
Put into perspective, this means that under Rajevac, the reigning Suzuki Cup champions have conceded three times in two qualifiers, with one goal coming in the 93rd minute and one from a penalty.
In addition, wins over weakened North Korean and Belarusian sides in July’s King’s Cup tournament were achieved with two clean sheets.
While this hardly represents particularly impressive form, it does suggest that winning by a three-goal margin may not be so straightforward.
Former Australia goalkeeper Mark Bosnich was somewhat dismissive of the challenge posed by Rajevac’s side when he looked ahead to the final two qualifiers last week.
“Saudi Arabia have to play Japan in that last game. Say they beat Japan by two goals, if we can’t beat Thailand on Tuesday night in Melbourne by three goals, well I’m sorry, we don’t deserve to be in the World Cup anyway,” Bosnich told SEN Breakfast this week.
But the former Manchester United keeper seems to have forgotten the struggles Australia had when they travelled to Bangkok last year and were second-best for much of the match.
Rajevac has adopted a more pragmatic approach than his predecessor, and is unlikely to try and go toe-to-toe with a superior opponent as Kiatisuk did in Japan.
The Thais had 14 shots on goal compared to Japan’s 13 and won six corners compared to the hosts’ three. But the Samurai Blue’s superior quality in the final third made the difference, giving them a crushing 4-0 win.
Rajevac is unlikely to try and go all-out for what would be a famous victory. But he would certainly settle for a point and a cautious approach may be what is required to achieve that.
The visitors will be without injured goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan, but they have an able deputy in Sintaweechai Hathairattanakool. And Thailand are unlikely to be fearing the Aussie attack, which was toothless in Japan.
The mercurial Tom Rogic was peripheral and the likes of Robbie Kruse and James Troisi battled gamely without creating any clear-cut opportunities. The expected return of Premier League midfielder Aaron Mooy, who missed the Japan game through illness, should add energy and attacking impetus to the midfield against the Thais.
Ultimately, the Socceroos should pick up three points against a side whose record on the road in this campaign has seen them lose all four games, concede 12 goals and score just once.
But those four games all came against teams managed by the more attack-minded Kiatisuk, Rajavac, who led Ghana to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2010, achieving a 1-1 draw with Australia in the group stage, will set up his team to be more difficult to break down.
Thailand may not have defenders of the calibre of Maya Yoshida and Yuto Nagatomo, against whom the Aussies toiled last Thursday. However, if Rajevac can convince his team of the importance of finishing the campaign on a high, Australia are likely to find it difficult to earn the massive winning margin that may be required.
Paul Murphy has lived in Thailand for nine years, contributing to ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express (UK) sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK