Thailand's Zico wants good WCQ start against Saudis, wary of Japan trio

Thailand's head coach Kiatisuk 'Zico' Senamuang insists his side are ready to spring a surprise despite being drawn in a tough group B for the final phase of AFC qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The Thais have been placed in what looks the more difficult of the two qualifying groups, facing Asian champions Australia, regular World Cup finalists Japan and Middle Eastern heavyweights Saudi Arabia. They also have to play Iraq again -- having faced them in the previous round -- and the United Arab Emirates.

Reaction from the Thai media and fans generally focused on the enormous task facing their country as they attempt to reach their first ever World Cup finals.

But Kiatisuk remained upbeat and told the FA Thailand website. "Even though we have an extremely tough group, I believe we can surprise a few people. It didn't matter who we got, it was always going to be difficult. We may be the lowest ranked team at this stage of the draw but we have earned the right to be here."

The Thais have recent experience of facing the Aussies in qualifying and acquitted themselves well in their 2014 qualifying bid. The Socceroos required late goals home and away to edge their Southeast Asian opponents.

Thailand also faced the Saudis in the same group, gaining a point at home but losing 3-0 away. Given their recent improvement, the Southeast Asian champions should be hopeful of giving the same rivals a more testing challenge this time around.

There will be little enthusiasm for another two games with Iraq, though the War Elephants proved more than a match for them in the previous round by drawing 2-2 home and away. It is also unlikely that the Lions of Mesopotamia will be looking forward to a rematch with Kiatisuk's side.

Some Thai fans may have painful memories of the last time they faced Japan in qualifying. The Samurai Blue won both ties by a 7-1 aggregate on their way to the 2010 World Cup. Nevertheless, Thailand will be delighted to welcome the stars of the Japan national side to Bangkok and fans will relish the opportunity to visit Japan -- an increasingly popular destination for Thai tourists. Equally, Bangkok will hold great appeal for fans of the Samurai Blue as well as being the draw that most Socceroos fans were hoping for.

Kiatisuk identified the double header in the Middle East in October as the toughest part of the schedule as the Thais face UAE and Iraq in the space of five days. The Thai coach stressed the importance of getting off on the right foot but the War Elephants have a tough start to their campaign with a trip to Saudi Arabia on Sept. 1st this year, before facing Japan at home just five days later.

"In the first match against Saudi Arabia, it is important to get at least a point," said Kiatisuk. "That will build confidence for the following game at home to Japan. The Japanese have several superstars, including Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki, but with our fans behind us, we can give them a hard game."

Thailand will need all the help they can get as they get set to face the might of Saudi Arabia and Japan, followed by three of the four semifinalists from the 2015 Asian Cup. While Kiatisuk speaks boldly of springing a surprise, avoiding bottom spot in the group would be an achievement for a team that has reached this stage just once before.