AL-AIN (United Arab Emirates) • Thailand looked in disarray when they sacked their coach one game into the Asian Cup but are now dreaming of greater things, inspired by their very own Messi.
Milovan Rajevac's dismissal following the shock 4-1 Group A opening loss to India appeared to have galvanised the War Elephants.
The bleach-blond midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin, 25, was key to their revival. He scored a sublime winner against Bahrain and set up the equaliser in Monday's 1-1 draw with hosts United Arab Emirates as the five-time Asean champions reached the knockout stages for the first time since 1972, when they finished third as hosts.
Interim coach Sirisak Yodyadthai said a change of mindset was key as they edged ahead of Bahrain on their head-to-head result after finishing level on four points, one behind the UAE.
He said: "When I came in I felt that things needed to change.
"I inserted determination and motivation for the players and, during the last two games, I know they were determined to play well and make a positive result."
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They were not cowed by the bigger and stronger UAE team, conceded just seven minutes in but hit back through Thitiphan Puangchan four minutes before the break.
"We have been through a lot of things but it's the team spirit that united us," the 1.58m Chanathip told Thai newspaper The Nation after the Bahrain game.
India failed to go through and then saw their coach, Stephen Constantine, resign after a 1-0 loss to the Bahrainis to finish bottom.
In Group A, champions Australia confirmed their passage into the last 16 behind Jordan with a 3-2 stoppage-time win over Syria after taking the lead twice yesterday. Jordan, who beat the Socceroos in the opener, drew 0-0 with Palestine but still topped the group with seven points.