Chanathip holds key for Thais

Star playmaker eager to clinch gold despite absence of coach Kiatisuk

THEY may be without the man who masterminded Thailand's return to Asean football's pinnacle, but anyone underestimating this Thailand side at the SEA Games should do so at their own peril.

For when the football tournament of the SEA Games starts tomorrow, the Thais will once again be favourites, even without head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang.

The man who masterminded the Thai's 2013 SEA Games and 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup triumphs did not arrive with the War Elephants on Tuesday afternoon, staying behind to prepare the senior team for upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

Yet, if hosts Singapore are to win that elusive football gold, they will have to get past another familiar face in assistant coach Choketawee Promrut, who had a successful career in the S-League with clubs such as Tampines Rovers.

And he insists that retaining the SEA Games gold remains a high priority for the Thais.

They have with seven players from last December's triumphant Suzuki Cup squad which dazzled regional football fans with their stylish brand of football.

The entire back-four is retained for the Games: Peerapat Notechaiya, Adisak Promrak, Tanaboon Kesarat and Narubodin Weerawatnodom all regular fixtures in the rearguard of the recent Suzuki Cup-winning team.

"The back four will be a crucial foundation to our success," said Choketawee. "For me, however, the whole team's effort is important to go for gold."

Then there is their star playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin, the creative spark that could make a difference in tight matches.

The diminutive 21-year-old has seen his stock in the region rise dramatically over the past year with plenty of eye-catching performances, especially at last year's Incheon Asian Games, where he helped the Thai football team to reach the semi-finals.

The attacking midfielder has reportedly garnering interest from top-tier Japanese sides such as Gamba Osaka and Shimizu S-Pulse, and Choketawee is confident that his young star can inspire his team to retain the coveted football gold.

"Chanathip is already one of the best players in South-east Asia, everyone looks out for him," the 40-year-old said.

"But there are no superstars in the Thai team, all players are equally important to us."

No doubt, his wizardry will be crucial for Thailand to negotiate a tricky opening Group B at the SEA Games, facing the likes of Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, Timor Leste and Brunei.

Hosts Singapore head Group A with Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia.

While Chanathip, who currently plays for Thai team BEC Tero Sasana, harbours ambitions of showcasing his precocious talents overseas, he is fully focused on the upcoming Games.

For him, only one colour of medal will suffice.

"Regardless of who we play, we go into every match only looking to win. Thailand have only one target: the gold medal."

jslow@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Lok Weng Seng