By Kitinan Sanguansak
Thailand missed the chance to take a significant step towards World Cup qualification after settling for a goalless draw with a struggling Saudi Arabia side in their third group match, at a packed Rajamangala National stadium yesterday.
Heading into the fixture second in Group D, which also features leaders Australia and Oman, the Thais could have established a healthy five-point advantage by beating third-placed Saudi, who failed to record a win in their opening two matches.
As it is, the draw leaves Thailand facing a tough challenge in the second part of the group stage, which includes away ties against the two Middle East nations.
The match was played against a background of diplomatic tension between the two countries, following the much-publicised Saudi jewellery case. The hosts took the chance to mend fences, with VIP seats allocated to Saudi officials and supporters.
The Embassy of Saudi Arabia reciprocated the good will, adding Bt500,000 to funds raised from the match, which the Football Association of Thailand had earlier announced would go to flood relief efforts.
National coach Winfried Schaefer’s call for increased home support for a match deemed crucial to Thailand’s chances of qualification, received a positive response. Thai fans, some of them with the national flag painted on their faces, turned up at the venue in far greater numbers than for the previous home tie, against Oman.
The Saudis had raised eyebrows with their initial plan to fly in from Malaysia on the match day, which left some wondering whether diplomatic strain had affected their decision. But a last-minute change of schedule saw them arrive the day before the game.
Their Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard was visibly happy when asked at a pre-match press conference about the change, saying his side would certainly be fresher than if they had flown in hours before the game.
With dark thunderclouds looming over the venue just before kick-off, the crowd added to the electrifying atmosphere during the pre-kick-off formalities.
But from the start, the benefits gained from their extra day were evident as the Saudis took the game to the hosts, dominating possession in the early exchanges.
Amid thunderous booing from the partisan crowd, the visitors launched their first assault on goal with a headed effort at the near post from a right-side free-kick. But home keeper Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakool, who retained his place despite the availability of fit-again Kawin Thamsatchanan, comfortably dealt with the danger.
Schaefer, in regulation smart black suit, gesticulated furiously on the sidelines as the Thais failed to string more than two passes together. The hosts almost conjured up a lead out of nothing, however, when Teerasil Dangda, who passed a late fitness test, created space with silky skills in front of the box, but fired his curling effort agonisingly wide of the far post.
The Saudis retaliated moments later with a counter-attack that sent Mohamed Noor in to the right side of the area. Though he managed to get his shot on target, Sinthaweechai was untroubled by the tame effort.
As the game wore on, the hosts gradually came into the match. But their good build-up play was ruined time and again by poor passing in the final third. Veteran centre-back Niweat Siriwong, who has enjoyed a return to favour under Schaefer, came to the home side’s rescue with a last-ditch intervention to clear Abdulaziz Dawsari’s shot off the line in the 37th minute.
The Thai side carved out another opening on the stroke of half-time when Suree Sukha, deputising for the unfit Somphong Sorlab, laid the ball back to captain Datsakorn Thonglao, whose low shot from eight yards out was smothered at the second attempt by the goalie.
Soon after the restart, the Thais had a scare when the lively Noor was given too much time and space inside the box. The crowd gasped in relief as the strongly-built forward struck his effort well over the bar.
Thailand enjoyed a sustained period of pressure after the hour mark, winning three corners in succession but failing to capitalise.
Sinthaweechai was then called into action to make two important saves in the space of a couple of minutes. The keeper first swooped on Yasser Al-Qahtani’s poor close-range shot, with Saudi players ready to pounce, before leaping to his left to stop Taiseer Jassam’s diving header.
The hosts survived one final scare when the visitors had the ball in the back of the net, but the goal was ruled out for a foul on the keeper, and the two sides settled for a share of the spoils.