Recently appointed Thailand coach Milovan Rajevac has set his sights on closing the gap between South East Asia’s leading nation and the continent’s top countries as the clock ticks closer to the finals of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019. Thailand will return to the finals of the continental championship 18 months from now for the first time since co-hosting the event in 2007, and Rajevac is aiming to turn the War Elephants into a team capable of matching the best in Asia.

“We have already lost our chance to qualify for this World Cup,” says the man who led Ghana to the quarter-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. “Still, there are a few matches to be played at the end of this competition and, of course, the Asian Cup is going to take place in 18 months from now. So it’s definitely time to start building a new group and a team who can challenge at the AFC Asian Cup.

“Of course, my target is to try to bring Thailand among the best Asian teams – at the level of Australia, Japan and Korea Republic in the future. That would be great.”

Thai football has been undergoing a resurgence at Asian level in recent years, with the country advancing to the final phase of qualifying for Russia 2018 and also qualifying for the AFC U-23 Championship last year in Qatar. But the gap between Rajevac’s new charges and the summit of the Asian game remains significant. Thailand have yet to win a match in the final round of FIFA World Cup qualifying, but the Serbian coach believes he has already seen improvements since taking over in May.

“There is a lot of time ahead of us and I wouldn’t have accepted this challenge if I didn’t think It was possible and realistic,” he says. “But it’s a hard task. “We need to change many things, in terms of everything to try to achieve that level. It’s not a small gap in terms of quality between these countries, if you look at the rankings. “But if we have a good approach with professional work and a lot of commitment and dedication from everybody we can do it. They still have to learn a lot of things, but I believe they have the potential to improve and challenge the other teams at the next Asian Cup in the Emirates in 18 months.”

Rajevac has led his team through four games so far, with Thailand losing to Uzbekistan in a friendly in Tashkent before being denied their first ever win in the final phase of World Cup qualifying by a late Ali Mabkhout goal in their meeting with United Arab Emirates in June. The Serbian coach’s team followed those results with victory in the annual King’s Cup in July, defeating DPR Korea in the semi-finals before a penalty shootout win over Belarus gave Thailand the title.

“The good things here are that the people have passion and the determination and desire to succeed,” he says. “They really like football here, but on the other hand there are a few problems we noticed from day one. If you look at the league, and the national team too, they are conceding many goals in the last 20 minutes. It can be as a result of inadequate fitness preparation or a lack of concentration, so we have to combine these two things to try to improve the level of fitness and also to approach this in terms of psychological preparation to overcome this problem for the future. This is definitely something we have to cope with. Of course, in the other areas, in terms of technical and tactical it can always be better, so we are going to try our best to improve all the other things, especially the tactical preparation.”

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