SE Asian champions Thailand hoping for a World Cup qualifying miracle
Even as Thailand open their 2018 World Cup campaign on Sunday by hosting Vietnam in a Group F Asian qualifier, the most die-hard Thai patriot would readily admit that the team is highly unlikely to be making the trip to Russia. However, the fans in the country are certainly hoping that Kiatisuk Senamuang's young side makes plenty of progress during the qualification campaign.
Kiatisuk has overseen much success at a regional level over the past two years, with the U23 side winning the SEA Games in 2013 and coming fourth in the Asian Games last year. The senior side then triumphed in the AFF Suzuki Cup in December 2014. It remains to be seen, however, whether this Thai side can become a force beyond Southeast Asia.
Below are three things to look out for during Sunday's game at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium:
1. Can Chanathip find his inner Messi?
Chanathip "Messi J" Songkrasin was the toast of Thailand in December after a series of scintillating displays led his country to the Suzuki Cup title. He crowned his player-of-the-tournament performance by scoring a sensational goal against Malaysia in the final to seal victory for the Thais.
However, Chanathip's domestic form for BEC Tero Sasana has been indifferent this season. Fans have seen little of the magical close control and mazy runs that catapulted him to stardom. Thai supporters will be hoping that a return to a full Rajamangala Stadium will inspire him to hit those heights again.
Chanathip has a habit of rising to the occasion. In addition to his big performances in a Thai shirt, the 21-year-old was man of the match as BEC Tero overcame Buriram United in last year's Thai League Cup final. Having the whole country behind him once more may help "Messi J" find his inner Messi again.
2. Where is the old Teerasil?
Not so long ago, the idea of a Thai team without Teerasil Dangda as striker would have been unthinkable. The Muang Thong United man has grabbed 29 goals for his country and has been widely considered to be the best Thai player of his generation.
However, Teerasil hasn't scored for his country in almost two years. He missed the Suzuki Cup while attempting to make a success of his loan spell with UD Almeria in Spain. The 26-year-old returned to Muang Thong in January after his loan was cut short and the striker is yet to find his feet again, with just two league goals to his name so far this season.
Some fans would prefer to see BEC Tero's Adisak Kraisorn get the nod. He has netted six goals in 10 games for Thailand and offers a strong physical presence up front.
Kiatisuk has been guarded about his team selection and may surprise us all by playing the two of them together as he seeks to address the failings in front of goal that were apparent in the 1-0 friendly loss to North Korea on Wednesday.
3. Will the Rajamangala roar be heard?
The backing of Thailand's notoriously fickle fans will be vital for the home side as they look to get the campaign started with three points. After years of relative indifference to the national side, the supporters got behind the team in numbers in the semifinal and final of the 2014 Suzuki Cup.
However, being there when Southeast Asian silverware is in touching distance and being there for the long haul of a World Cup qualifying campaign are two very different things. Kiatisuk has already urged the home support to come in numbers and lift the decibel level inside the Rajamangala stadium.
The Thai players have often made references to the inspiring nature of the Rajamangala roar. They will hope for an encore on Sunday evening.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK