Asian Cup expectations high for Thailand but recent turmoil means jury is out

Having reached the knockout round last time out, Thailand will be hoping to emulate the feat at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup but their preparations have been far from ideal. Supakit Wisetanuphong/MB Media/Getty Images

Thailand are expected to make an impact at the AFC Asian Cup.

They reached the round of 16 last time out.

They are the standout team from Southeast Asia, having won the past two editions of the AFF Championship.

And they are brimming with talent, even if it is not at the level of the continent's leading lights such as Japan, South Korea and Iran.

Still, just because they are expected to do well at the Asian Cup does not necessarily mean they will.

Especially considering the turmoil that has plagued them in recent times, which means they have not had the most ideal of preparations for a second consecutive appearance in Asia's premier international competition.

Less than two months ago, they made the curious decision to part ways with Alexandre Polking -- a much-loved figure among both players and fans, who had helped the War Elephants reclaim their status as the top team in their region after being usurped by neighbours Vietnam.

The result came just a day after they had picked up their first win in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup by beating Singapore, although speculation was rife that a decision over his future had been made after their defeat to China days earlier -- hardly an embarrassing result given the Chinese were, at the time, 33 spots higher in the world rankings.

To replace him, Thailand turned to Japanese tactician Masatada Ishii, who is admittedly no stranger to Thai football given he led Buriram United to the past two domestic league titles.

Rather, it is the timing of the change that is threatening to wreak havoc with the War Elephants' Asian Cup prospects given it came less than 60 days before the start of a tournament that had long been identified as one they would be looking to go far in.

If the situation was not troubled enough as it is, Thailand were dealt a further blow with the confirmation that star duo Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda would miss through injury.

The loss of Teerasil would have been the easier pill to swallow given the 35-year-old is slowly but surely coming to the end of a brilliant career and was in the process of being gradually phased out, although his experience and stature would still have come in handy against high-level opposition.

But going into an Asian Cup without Chanathip -- widely regarded as one of Asia's best playmakers of the past decade -- will leave a void that will be impossible to fill.

Thailand will need others to rise to the occasion -- and they do have several excellent options.

Captain Theerathon Bunmathan might ultimately be fielded in his natural left-back position but, as he showed when he was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2022 AFF Championship, he arguably will be even more influential in the middle of the park.

Supachok Sarachat, who has followed Chanathip's career path in moving to Japan with Consadole Sapporo, has game-changing abilities, as does his former Buriram teammate Supachai Jaided.

Yet, perhaps Thailand's best hope will come in the form of one of their most precocious -- Suphanat Mueanta.

As the second-youngest member of Ishii's 26-man squad -- and only by a month -- Suphanat could be the one to prove the difference, especially when the Thais come up against more-illustrious opposition.

The younger 21-year-old brother of Supachok, Suphanat has already racked up an impressive list of achievements en route to earning a recent move to Europe when he joined Belgium Pro League club OH Leuven.

Having made his debut at just 15, Suphanat became the youngest player to score in both the Thai League 1 and AFC Champions League within a year, and was a three-time league champions by the time he left Buriram for OHL.

With plenty of talent still for Ishii to turn to, Thailand could still make the type of impact many were expecting - and hoping - from them.

They have, however, not done themselves any favours.