Tough mission for Thailand in Saitama (February 06, 2008)

After comfortable wins over Macau and Yemen in the first two qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup, Thailand will get a real test in the first group stage featuring Asian zone's top 20 teams. The Thais are grouped with Japan, Bahrain and Oman with two teams from each of the five groups advancing to the final qualifying stage, or the last 10 teams.

Thailand have reached Asia's final qualifying round for the World Cup only once in 2001, and they are determined to repeat the feat or do it even better this time round.

Thailand will begin their campaign in the group phrase with a formidable task against Asian powerhouses Japan in Saitama today.

But Thai officials are confident that they will return home with at least one point with one believing that the Thais are good enough to beat Japan.

Thailand coach Chanvit Phalajivin believes his side will get 10 points and go through to the next round. He targets seven points from three home games _ wins over Bahrain and Oman, and draw with Japan _ and three away draws.

As the World Cup qualification is Thailand's most important task this year, concerned parties have tried to do everything to ensure the side are well-prepared for the assignment.

Knowing that they would face freezing conditions in Japan, the Thais were sent to train at Manchester City for two weeks last month.

It is freezing cold in Japan but Thai officials say their players have adjusted to the weather thanks to their training in Manchester.

However, I don't think Thailand can beat Japan in any kind of weather and a draw with the Japanese will be a great result.

Thailand are still looking forward to their first-ever win over Japan in a competitive match. In their 20 previous meetings, Thailand defeated Japan only once in a friendly in Bangkok in 1997.

I think Thailand will lose to Japan today and a narrow defeat should be acceptable.

The Thais will have to do without midfielder Datsakorn Thonglao and right-back Suree Sukha who are both suspended. They also likely to miss centre-backs Kiatprawut Saiwaew and Prat Samakrat.Losing to Japan in their opening game of this stage would not be the end of the world and the kingdom look capable of reaching the final qualifying stage.

They look decent in almost every department.

The defence is marshalled by Manchester City players Suree and Kiatprawut. The midfield features Tawan Sripan, Datsakorn and Sutee Suksomkit who all have experience playing for clubs overseas.

Born-again midfielder Narongchai Vachiraban, who was impressive in Thailand's winning campaign at the King's Cup in December, could be a key factor.

Hotshot Sarayuth Chaikamdee, dubbed ''Five Yard Joe'' for his finishing, leads the Thai attack, and coach Chanvit is spoiled for choice for Sarayuth's partner.

They include young stars Teerathep Winothai, Manchester City's Teerasil Daengda and SEA Games top-scorer Anon Sangsanoi.

Since Worawi Makudi was elected president of the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) last March, the management has become more like professionals.

The fixtures of the new Thailand Premier League season have been scheduled in line with the World Cup qualifying round with a break before Thailand's match.

The travel arrangements for an away match are much better than a couple of years ago. In the past, sometimes the team had to fly more than 24 hours to the Middle East and sleep at an airport awaiting transit.

With Kittiratt, former president to the Stock Exchange of Thailand, as the national team manager, it seems that there is no shortage of bonuses for the players.

He has promised to give the team 100 million baht extra if they qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals.

Critics say it is not likely Kittiratt will have to pay out that sum and that it would be better if he seeks funds for football development and long-term projects.