Thailand left to rue missed opportunity after AFC U-23 Asian Cup collapse

After making a bright start at the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup by beating Iraq in their opener, Thailand came up short in their quest to reach the quarterfinals after suffering back-to-back defeats against Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan. Asian Football Confederation

It all started so brightly for Thailand and, even heading into Monday's final Group C action, they remained on course to reach the quarterfinals of the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup.

But in the classic style of tournament football, the Thais would suffer heartbreak as they ended the evening bottom of the group after a 1-0 loss to Tajikistan -- bringing an end to their campaign and any hope they had of qualifying for the men's football tournament at the Olympic Games later this year.

Ultimately, Thailand only have themselves to blame.

The same verve they showed just six days earlier -- when they began their campaign with a upset 2-0 victory over Iraq -- was nowhere to be found in the opening 45, as bottom-placed Tajikistan enjoyed the better of the proceedings despite being without a point yet from their opening two outings.

For that, Thailand coach Issara Sritaro will have to shoulder some of the responsibility given his decision to make a significant number of changes to his expected strongest XI -- even if they were coming off the back of a humbling 5-0 loss to Saudi Arabia on Friday.

Given the high-stakes nature of the contest, and the fact that the Thais began the evening sitting in second place, it is perhaps understandable why Issara opted for a more conservative approach -- yet it would ultimately backfire.

There is good reason to believe that, had they shown the same intent as they did against Iraq, they could easily have taken the game to Tajikistan rather than get overwhelmed as the opposition employed the exact fearless approach.

Instead, Issara's decision to bring in an extra defensive-minded player and move Waris Choolthong, who had been excellent at right-back, into a midfield role he is admittedly equally adept in failed to provide any extra insurance.

The War Elephants were arguably fortunate not to have been trailing at the break and, as news undoubtedly filtered through that Iraq were a chance to get the result they needed against Saudi Arabia in the other game to stand a chance of qualifying, the chances were rung.

Again, the fact that Thailand's triple substitution at halftime did not take long to have the desired effect begs the question as to why the system was not employed from the opening whistle.

Leading the line, Teerasak Poephimai offered a real physical presence despite constantly being outnumbered, paving the way for Settasit Suvannaseat and, later in the second half, Chitsanuphong Choti to cause problems just in behind him.

All of a sudden, Tajikistan not only had some defending to worry about -- but they actually longer at real risk of being scored against as the half progressed.

Still, Tajikistan deserve credit for continuing to show plenty of spirit and they would eventually get the winner -- probably deserving on the balance of play throughout the entire contest -- when Manuchekhr Safarov ghosted into the six-yard box to net with a glancing header just as the clock ticked over into injury-time.

As the final whistle blew shortly after, the Thai players immediately slumped to the turf in despair.

They did not even need to wait for the result of the other Group C contest to know they had spurned an excellent opportunity -- and there was unlikely to be any reprieve in the form of assistance from Saudi Arabia, who needed to score twice in injury-time to deny Iraq.

True enough, Iraq would hold out for a 2-1 win to remarkably leapfrog Saudi Arabia themselves and finish top of Group C.

In the end, it is hardly an embarrassing campaign for Thailand given they were up against three excellent teams -- with the senior teams of the quartet all present at the AFC Asian Cup at the start of the year.

Yet, considering how well they started the U-23 Asian Cup, there is likely to be a sense of regret from the War Elephants that they were incapable of making more out of their time in Qatar.