Tall order for Thailand at Asian Cup.
Thailand coach Milovan Rajevac is still hopeful of progressing into the Asian Cup second round despite his side being placed in a tough group with host nation the United Arab Emirates.
The Serbian attended Friday’s draw in Dubai at the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and declared himself satisfied at being placed in group A alongside world No 97 India, No 119 Bahrain and No 81 UAE, who beat Thailand 3-1 in a World Cup Qualifier in October 2016.
“I’m OK with the draw as all teams have better world rankings than we do. We are ready to face any team and I believe I can help the team reach the second round,” said Rajevac, who led his team into the final of the King’s Cup in March where they lost to the Slovak Republic 3-2.
“We will study each team carefully but in the end it all depends on how we play. However we also have our own style,” added Rajevac who has been in charge of the Thai team, ranked 122nd in the world, since April last year.
The Kingdom will kick off their campaign against India in Abu Dhabi on January 6, then play Bahrain on January 10 in Dubai and take on the hosts in Al Ain on January 14.
Defending champions, who beat South Korea 2-1 in the final of the 2015 edition as hosts, have been drawn in Group B with Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
Australia and Jordan have faced each other four times, all in World Cup qualifying, with each side winning two games, while Syria’s gallant but eventually unsuccessful bid to qualify for the upcoming World Cup in Russia has made football fans sit up and take notice.
Japan, who have won the event a record four times, are expected to sail through to the round of 16 from Group F which also includes Uzbekistan, Oman and Turkmenistan.
Former champions Iran and Iraq have been slotted in Group D along with Vietnam and Yemen, while feuding neighbours Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been drawn in Group E with North Korea and Lebanon for company.
The Saudis have won the continental championship three times, but their last success was in 1996 when the event was hosted by the UAE.
The expanded tournament will see 24 teams battle it out for a five million dollar top prize along with a brand new trophy, which was also unveiled at the draw on Friday.
The runners-up in the richest-ever Asian Cup will pocket $3 million while all 24 teams taking part will be awarded $200,000 for merely qualifying.
The tournament will kick off with a Group A match between hosts UAE and Bahrain at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi on January 5.
Ahead of the draw, the new Asian Cup trophy was unveiled by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa and former UAE international Zuhair Bakheet.
“Since 1956 we have had the same trophy and in keeping with the new and exciting future of the competition, the AFC decided to commission a new trophy, one that captures the excitement and drama of the tournament ahead,” said Sheikh Salman.
The tournament will take place from January 5 to February 1 in the UAE.
Only the top two teams from each group and four of the best third-placed teams will move into the next round.
Asian Cup draw:
GROUP A: United Arab Emirates, Thailand, India, Bahrain
GROUP B: Australia Syria, Palestine, Jordan
GROUP C: Korea Republic, China, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines
GROUP D: Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Yemen
GROUP E: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon, Korea DPR
GROUP F: Japan, Uzbekistan, Oman, Turkmenistan