Rajevac relishing Thai underdog status
Thailand head coach Milovan Rajevac is motivated by his team's status as Group A outsiders ahead of their Asian Cup opener against India. Twelve years on from their previous campaign at the continental showpiece, Thailand head into the tournament having been dethroned as AFF Cup holders – the Southeast Asian competition they claimed in 2014 and 2016. Thailand's common problem of being overly strong in their region and not strong enough in the continent at large is one former Ghana boss Rajevac has been keen to address by prioritising this tournament.
The 65-year-old Serbian tactician has sought to bring a more pragmatic edge to Thailand's play but observed their weaknesses were made "obvious" in a 2-0 friendly loss to Oman this week. Nevertheless, 2010 World Cup quarter-finalist Rajevac put on a bullish front at his pre-match news conference. "The AFF Cup is behind us. Yes, we lost but we played with a team that was missing several regulars who were playing for clubs abroad. It is a completely different situation now," he said. "We have the best players available and we are determined to advance to the next round."
In the FIFA rankings, Thailand are below India and fellow group opponents the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who shared a 1-1 draw on Saturday. "That will motivate us further," Rajevac added. "We are looking forward to playing, not only India but also UAE and Bahrain, as we relish our chances of making the knockout stage."
India last reached the Asian Cup in 2011, with Englishman Stephen Constantine now leading a youthful squad in his second stint in charge. "What has changed in the four years is our mentality," he told reporters. "If before, it was to not lose by many goals, now it is to win. The work rate has also increased. In fact, the reason why we are here is because of the work rate and unity."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Thailand – Teerasil Dangda
Teerasil played in Thailand's previous Asian Cup campaign as a 19-year-old and now returns as captain and the only survivor from that squad. A versatile forward whose superb form for Muangthong United earned him a loan move to Almeria in 2014, Teerasil is his country's creative inspiration and will want to grab perhaps his last chance to shine on the big stage.
India – Sunil Chhetri
A similar story to Teerasil, Chhetri scored two of India's three goals in their previous Asian Cup outing. His country's 34-year-old captain and record goalscorer, Bengaluru FC striker Chhetri recently polled higher than Vissel Kobe's ex-Barcelona great Andres Iniesta in Titan Sports' poll to rank the best footballers in Asia.
KEY OPTA FACTS
- This will be the first encounter at the Asian Cup between Thailand and India.
- Thailand have won only one of their 20 games at the Asian Cup (D8 L11), failing to make it out of the group stages in their last five appearances. They have conceded in 18 of those games.
- This is India's fourth Asian Cup appearance. They finished second in a four-team event in 1964 but have since failed to make it out of the group stage.
- India have lost six of their previous seven games at the Asian Cup (D1), scoring three goals and conceding 20.