November 7, 2018 / 9:15 AM / 9 days ago

Soccer-Weakened Thais face challenge to retain ASEAN title

HONG KONG, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Thailand go into the latest edition of the AFF Championship in search of a third straight title but with several key players missing Milovan Rajevac’s team could be about to cede their status as Southeast Asia’s number one.

Midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin has impressed during his first full season in the J-League with Consadole Sapporo but neither he nor fellow Japan-based duo Theerathon Bunmathan and Teerasil Dangda will join up with the Thai squad.

With Belgium-based goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan also absent for the Thais, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia will fancy their chances of winning the ASEAN Football Federation’s biennial 10-team tournament, which kicks off on Thursday.

“I picked the best 23 players I believe can deliver the best results,” Rajevac told Thai media.

“It’s not an easy decision to make as I’m happy with how all players have done so far.

“I personally believe in every department of my team. It’s very important to have all areas covered by quality players. I have faith in the ability of my players but to win we will have to have good teamwork.”

Thailand have been drawn in Group B, where they will kick off their title defence against East Timor in Bangkok before taking on Indonesia. The Philippines and Singapore complete the group.

Indonesia will look to build on their run to the 2016 final, as well as the performance of their team at the recent Asian U19 Championship when they advanced to the quarter-finals before losing to Japan.

The Philippines play their first competitive matches under former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.

The tournament will serve as an opportunity to fine tune their preparations for their debut appearance at the Asian Cup finals in the United Arab Emirates in January.

In Group A, Vietnam will be favourites to advance to the last four as they continue to show significant improvement at international level.

Coach Park Hang-seo is attempting to build on his team’s run to the final of the Asian U23 Championship in China earlier this year and their appearance in the semi-finals of the Asian Games in August.

Malaysia will seek to translate their recent form at youth level into a change in fortunes for the senior team after several years in the doldrums.

The tournament kicks off on Thursday when Cambodia host the Malaysians while Vietnam travel to Laos. Group B begins on Friday as Singapore take on Indonesia and East Timor face Thailand.

The top two finishers in each five-team group advance to the semi-finals, which will be played in early December, with a two-legged final to be played on Dec. 11 and 15.

Editing by Peter Rutherford

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