By Michael Church
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Milovan Rajevac takes Thailand to their first Asian Cup finals in more than a decade hoping to change attitudes and outcomes in a country whose passion for soccer has long outstripped performance at continental level.
Thailand have dominated the game in South East Asia since they last appeared at the Asian Cup in 2007, winning the regional Asean Championship twice only to continue to fall short of climbing onto the continent’s upper tier.
While they have been unable to challenge leading nations such as Japan and South Korea, Rajevac is confident his team can make their mark in the United Arab Emirates.
“We were able to spend a lot of time together because of the Asean Championship and with the Asian Cup we’ll be looking to achieve something we haven’t achieved before,” said Rajevac.
“Our minimum expectation is to go through to the Round of 16, to go through the group.
“That’s our minimum, but going to the best 16 is not going to satisfy us. We won’t just be happy with that and we’ll try to go step-by-step.”
Thailand, who have been drawn to face the hosts UAE, Bahrain and India, have not advanced to the Asian Cup knockout rounds since a semi-final appearance in 1972.
Rajevac has brought a more pragmatic style to the team since his arrival in April last year and that approach has put pressure on the 64-year-old from a fan base that demands attacking, entertaining soccer.
The scrutiny of his methods increased in December when a surprise defeat to Malaysia in the Asean Championship semi-finals to end their hopes of a third consecutive regional title.
It is, however, all part of a bigger picture for the Serb, who will welcome back Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda and Theerathon Bunmathan after they missed the Asean Championship due to club commitments although Belgium-based goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan has been ruled out with injury.
“We’re working on making the team more compact and having the players understand each other better and how they play,” said Rajevac.
“We want something from them that is different to what they are doing with their clubs, playing for the result and taking more responsibility.
“But they’re adjusting and they’re adapting to these things and I’m positive that we are going in the right direction.”
The culmination of the right direction for Rajevac will be leading Thailand to their first World Cup finals in Qatar in 2022 with the Jan. 5-Feb. 1 Asian Cup just the latest step along that road.
“This is a great chance for them to make their mark, to gain more experience and more mental strength, to allow them to realise that they can play against teams that are much higher in the rankings and to show them that they can do this,” he said.
“An experience like this will give the players extra energy and extra confidence so that next time they can do better and other teams look at you differently if you do well.
“Playing at the continental competition – especially if you do well – helps you in terms of increasing the chances to qualify for the World Cup.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)