TEN months ago, Milovan Rajevac, coach of the Thailand team, was sitting beside his Malaysian counterpart Tan Cheng Hoe at a pre-match press conference at Bukit Jalil.
That one was for the AFF Cup semi-finals. Things didn’t go well for Serbian Rajevac as Thailand were knocked out by Malaysia on goal difference (0-0 in Kuala Lumpur and 2-2 in Bangkok).
Rajevac was sacked by the Thai FA in January, and the man who replaced him was seated beside Cheng Hoe yesterday at Bukit Jalil in a similar press conference.
Cheng Hoe would love a deja vu,that Thailand will fall to Malaysia again. But Akira Nishino, who succeeded Rajevac, is proving to be far more dangerous to Malaysia in today’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against Thailand at the National Stadium.
Under the Japanese, Thailand have surged to the top of Group G in the World Cup qualifiers while Malaysia are struggling in fourth place.
Nishino has transformed the War Elephants into an exciting side as they trampled Middle East heavyweights the United Arab Emirates 2-1 and Indonesia 3-0 after a 0-0 draw with Vietnam in their opening group match.
Before coming to Thailand,
Nishino has already made a name for himself as coach of the Japan team at last year’s Russia World Cup. Under Nishino, the Blue Samurai scalped Colombia 2-1 and they were edged 3-2 by Belgium after taking a 2-0 lead in the last 16.
Nishino is a hard man to please and despite all the early success by Thailand in the ongoing pre-World Cup campaign,he said Thailand must play well in all eight matches in the qualifiers.
‘It’s not my style to emphasise on what we did against UAE or how Malaysia did against Vietnam. I want my players to focus game by game and deliver good results,’ said Nishino yesterday.
‘It’s not that easy and it will take time to implement a philosophy in a team. Of course there are things that need to be adjusted and adapted as we go on. That’s what we’re trying to do to improve day by day.’
Though it’s not really David versus Goliath when World No 109 Thailand face World No 158 Malaysia today, Cheng Hoe’s men won’t get to start as favourites even though they are the home side.
Thailand are brimming with confidence following a series of success while Harimau Malaya are struggling to get themselves together following back-to-back defeats to UAE (2-1) and Vietnam (1-0).
But yet, there is something in Malaysia’s favour albeit a psychological one. The War Elephants have yet to beat Malaysia in four matches at Bukit Jalil, a run that stretches back to 2004. And Thailand don’t need an elephant’s memory to be aware of that.
With this in mind, Malaysia captain Aidil Zafuan intends to give The War Elephants a run for their money.
‘The difference between this Thailand side and the one that played us during the AFF Cup is huge,” said Aidil yesterday.
‘Thailand have many new players and a new coach as well. In fact they are now stronger.’
While Cheng Hoe may look to introduce different sets of players in midfield and in attack compared to the team that lost 1-0 to Vietnam, the back four is unlikely to change.
Aidil heads the defence group with Shahrul Saad alongside him, and La’Vere Corbin-Ong and Matthew Davies in the full backs role. They will have to be efficient and solid against a potent Thai attack led by Teerasil Dangda.
‘Teerasil is a player who is very experienced and a very good player. But we won’t give Thailand an easy time.
‘What is important is that we are together and play as a team. No team in the world are unbeatable, even Liverpool can lose,’ he added.