Thailand's next generation rise to the occasion in opening Asian Cup win

Thailand got their 2023 AFC Asian Cup campaign off to a winning start on Tuesday as a clinical brace by Supachai Jaided handed them a 2-0 triumph over Kyrgyz Republic in Group F. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Thailand's preparations for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup were not exactly smooth sailing -- and it was a massive blow when it was confirmed that their star duo Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda would miss through injury.

Chanathip has been one of the continent's leading playmakers in recent years and the War Elephants creator-in-chief for a decade now while Teerasil, while now entering the twilight of his career, still offered plenty of valuable experience from over a decade of being the most-feared striker in Southeast Asia.

Without them, and especially given recent turmoil which saw former coach Alexandre Polking replaced by Masatada Ishii just back in November, there was an air of uncertainty over how well-drilled a Thailand outfit would turn up in Qatar.

On Tuesday, the next generation of stars showed that they could have what it takes to fire Thailand deep in the tournament -- as they opened their Group F campaign with a comfortable 2-0 win over Kyrgyz Republic.

Supachai Jaided proved to be the match winner with two goals either side of halftime, displaying the predatory instincts of a poacher that even Teerasil would have been proud.

His first came in the 26th minute when his late run into the box was rewarded with an open goal to finish into after Kyrgyz Republic goalkeeper Erzhan Tokotayev failed to get a firm enough hand on Supachok Sarachat's speculative 20-yard effort.

Then, three minutes after the restart, Supachai bagged the all-important second when he again found himself in the right place at the right time as the ball ricocheted off the back off a defender and fell into his path to leave him with a simple finish from five yards out.

In a tournament where the top two in each group after guaranteed a spot in the knockout round -- and even finishing third could be enough -- an opening victory now puts the War Elephants in an excellent position.

Despite some doubts hanging over them on the eve of kickoff, Thailand have passed their first test in emphatic fashion thanks to their next generation.

Yet, in all fairness, referring to them as the "next generation" perhaps is not exactly accurate despite the perception -- and that perhaps has something to do with the fact that, for so long now, Thailand's charge has indeed been led by the likes of Chanathip, Teerasil and current captain Theerathon Bunmathan.

But both Supachai and Supachok are now 25 and around the 30-cap mark, with the former plying his trade in Japan with J1 League outfit Consadole Sapporo and seemingly only a matter of time before the latter follows suit in earning a move abroad.

Suphanat Mueanta, Supachok's younger brother and the third in Thailand's trio of exciting talent, is only 21 but has been around since making his professional debut in Thai League 1 at 15.

No stranger to competing with opponents far stronger and more experienced than him, Suphanat already plays like the seasoned campaigner that he actually is -- and has only improved since taking his talents to the Belgian Pro League with OH Leuven.

Perhaps they aren't the "next generation" as this being a changing of the guard for Thailand -- and there are others waiting in the wing.

Kritsada Kaman had to settle for a place on the bench on Tuesday but is already one of the region's best whether he is deployed in defence or midfield, while fellow 24-year-old Nicholas Mickelson put in an assured performance playing the entire game at right-back - despite this only being his 8th senior international appearance.

Regardless of whether or not it only came about because their hand was forced, perhaps it was high time that the War Elephants relieved some of the burden that had constantly been on the shoulders of Chanathip, Teerasil and Theerathon -- who already have the achievement of reaching the round of 16 last time out.

For Thailand, this Asian Cup could just belong to Supachai, Supachok and Suphanat.