Thailand meet expectations at Asian Cup but might wonder what could have been after last 16 exit

Thailand bowed out of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup on Tuesday after a narrow 2-1 loss to Uzbekistan in the round of 16. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

Reaching the knockout round of the AFC Asian Cup for the second consecutive occasion was always going to be the target for Thailand -- a goal already achieved at the continent's premier international tournament ahead of Tuesday.

Nonetheless, the round of 16 would prove to be as far as the Thais would get after a 2-1 loss to Uzbekistan meant that it was the latter who would be advancing to the quarterfinals.

It marked the end of a campaign that produced plenty of positives for Thailand but, as they prepare to head home from Qatar, they could also have been left wondering what could have been.

The War Elephants' troubled build-up to the tournament was no secret, after the Football Association of Thailand opted to part ways with well-loved former coach Alexandre Polking last November -- just two months before they were set to return to the biggest stage Asian football has to offer.

It meant that his replacement Masatada Ishii hardly had any time to get into the groove, with his only game before the competition kicked off an emphatic 5-0 rout at the hands of Japan.

Then, there was also the question on how they would cope without arguably their two most important players of the past decade in talismanic playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin and veteran striker Teerasil Dangda, who both missed out through injury.

While there were plenty of doubts about them, Thailand did well to answer most.

An opening 2-0 win over Kyrgyz Republic got them off to a perfect start in Group F, before battling 0-0 draws against Oman and Saudi Arabia proved enough for a second-place finish and a spot in the round of 16.

It was those two stalemates however where doubters began to question their mentality given the way Ishii clearly set his side out to defend and play for the draw.

Against Oman especially, it did feel like there was a win there for the taking despite the Thais sitting 39 places lower on the FIFA world rankings, while perhaps a bit of adventure could have been shown against Saudi Arabia -- despite them obviously being one of the continent's powerhouses -- given it was essentially a dead rubber with progress already secured.

It must be said that it is always easy to critique a team's performance and ambition with the benefit of hindsight.

What cannot be questioned is that Thailand did achieve their objective through the means they felt would give them the best chance to do so.

Again on Tuesday, without being critical of the approach, the Thais might just be preparing to department with a sense of ruefulness.

It was clear the game plan was to keep it tight and frustrate as they once again came up against more-illustrious opponents.

Having rotated his entire starting XI against Saudi Arabia, Ishii reverted to his first choice backline but then decided to retain several who had featured in that final group stage tie.

With the likes of Pathompol Charoenrattanapirom and Rungrath Poomchantuek ever-industrious but perhaps lacking that extra bit of class, it seemed as though Ishii was banking on utilising their enterprise to work Uzbekistan before turning to the class of Supachok Sarachat and Suphanat Mueanta -- who were both surprise substitutes.

The plan was largely paid off until the 37th minute when a searching pass by Diyor Kholmatov just caught Thailand captain Theerathon Bunmathan under the flight and slightly out of position, allowing Azizbek Turgunboev to nip in and slot home the opening goal.

No surprise then that Ishii waited no further than the halftime break to bring on Supachok and Suphanat and, within 13 minutes, the former proved to be an inspired introduction.

Finding space on the edge of the area, Supachok steadied himself before curling away an exquisite effort that just enough whip and precision to bend around Utkir Yusupov's despairing dive.

Unfortunately for Thailand, Uzbekistan also had a genius of their own.

Just seven minutes after parity was restored, Abbosbek Fayzullaev -- in similar fashion -- would find an opening just outside the box and proceeded to create just a yard of space from the advancing Pansa Hemviboon that was enough for him to drill an inch-perfect shot into the bottom corner.

Finding themselves trailing once more, Thailand mustered one final effort to find a second equaliser to force extra-time but it proved to just be a bridge too far for a team that had only scored twice in the entire group stage -- with centre-back Elias Dolah spurning the best chance right at the death when he was narrowly unable to keep a towering header down from close range.

Dolah himself had a day before, in the pre-match news conference, stated that Thailand's ambition was to win four more games -- essentially meaning they were looking to go all the way.

At moments, especially in the second half against Uzbekistan, they did show that ambition but maybe -- had they shown that throughout the 90 minutes -- the result could have different.

Again, that is purely speculative -- with the benefit of hindsight.

Thailand have still passed the test set for them by reaching as far as they got at the Asian Cup, but some of them might just be left wondering what could have been.