Thailand show early promise at AFC U-23 Asian Cup ahead of huge Saudi Arabia test

Thailand got their 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup campaign off to a perfect start on Tuesday as they beat Iraq 2-0 to join Saudi Arabia at the top of Group A. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

At 101st in the world, Thailand currently sit 43 places behind Iraq in the FIFA men's rankings.

While those standings are not always the most accurate reflection when it comes to age-group tournaments, where the gulf in class between sides is often narrower, it was still quite a statement that was delivered at the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup on Tuesday evening.

Producing a disciplined yet clinical performance, Thailand got their campaign off to a perfect start as they pulled off a 2-0 upset win over the Iraqis -- courtesy of goals from Waris Choolthong and Teerasak Poeiphimai.

With Saudi Arabia beating Tajikistan 4-2 in the evening's other Group C tie, it means that the Thais now find themselves in a strong position to reach the quarterfinals and keep alive their hopes of qualifying for this year's Olympic Games, which the U-23 Asian Cup serves as a qualifier for.

Two wins from three group-stage games should be enough to get the job done, although the War Elephants do face a massive test if they want to seal the deal as soon as their next game -- given it will be against Saudi Arabia.

Yet, if their opening display against Iraq is anything to go by, they have reason to believe they could pull off another surprise.

On Tuesday, Thailand were compact in defence and, while the opposition did fire away 23 attempts at goal, only five found the target.

When they did have possession, the Thais were content to patiently carve out the right opening before turning on the pace and intent -- and it was with such a sweeping move forward that saw them take the lead in the 26th minute.

Initially working the ball around in their own half, two quick passes then saw them switch play out to the left, where Erawan Garnier would eventually swing a perfectly-weighted cross towards the back post for the rampaging Waris to finish from close range after he had ghosted in behind the unaware Iraq backline.

Waris then turned provider five minutes after the hour mark when a dangerous corner delivery was met by Teerasak with an emphatic header into the back of the net, which was enough to put the result beyond doubt.

There was a clear game plan which Thailand looked to employ in a game they had expected to lose out in the possession stakes, and that is likely to be the case again on Friday when they meet Saudi Arabia.

But perhaps what is most promising for the War Elephants and their prospects is the sheer amount of promising talent the current squad boasts.

Despite Teerasak having a breakout campaign in Thai League 1 with Port having scored 12 goals -- just four behind current top scorer Willen Mota -- Thailand coach Issara Sritaro could still afford to have kept him in reserve until the second half as he opted for Guntapon Keereeleang to lead the line.

Although the Thais claimed the silver medal at last year's Southeast Asian Games, only six members of that team are present at the U-23 Asian Cup, highlighting the wave of new prospects that have come through in the past 12 months or so.

This includes Garnier, a French-born winger who is currently on the books of Ligue 1 giants Lyon, as well as Chitsanuphong Choti and Songkhramsamut Namphueng -- who have both gained first-team exposure in Thai League 1 this season with Khon Kaen United and Police Tero respectively.

While the current team may not boast the same quality as a decade ago, when now-established senior stalwarts such as Chanathip Songkrasin, Sarach Yooyen and Narubadin Weerawatnodom were all coming through at the same time, they have shown plenty to suggest the future remains bright for the War Elephants.

Reaching the knockout round of the U-23 Asian Cup would provide further evidence and, should they get there, perhaps they will even start dreaming of a return to the Olympic Games for the first time since 1968 -- when the men's football tournament was still a senior competition.

First, though, they get another chance to display their credentials against the might of Saudi Arabia come Friday evening.