Coach prays for no more injury blows
Nishino rues Ekanit withdrawal, Thai U23 squad land in the Philippines to defend football crown
Thailand's U23 football squad went straight to work upon their arrival in the Philippines yesterday and started flexing their muscles for a shot at their fourth straight SEA Games gold medal.
Thailand coach Akira Nishino, who has agreed to extend his contract with the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) until 2021, led the team to a gym to help them get in a better shape for the tough battles during the Games.
The young War Elephants have been drawn in a tough Group B, which includes co-title favourites Vietnam. The other teams in the group are Indonesia, Singapore, Laos and Brunei.
Group A comprises the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Timor Leste.
The top two teams from each group will qualify for the semi-finals.
Thailand are scheduled to kick off the defence of their title on Tuesday when they take on Indonesia in their first Group B game.
Earlier, prior to the team's departure for Manila yesterday, Nishino said he was praying that "no more Thai players will get injured".
The 64-year-old Japanese was referring to in-form forward Ekanit Panya's withdrawal from the SEA Games squad due to injury. Ekanit needs a surgery on his knee and is likely to be sidelined for a few months.
Nishino said: "This [the SEA Games] is an important tournament and we are already down one player. Ekanit has an injury and the event regulations do not permit us to change any players.
"I am worried because the tournament will be played on an artificial pitch which puts the players at a high risk of getting injured.
"I know very well that the expectations are very high and the Thai football fans want us to win the gold medal, but my prime concern is to keep my players fit and injury-free.
"The rules of the event need to be changed. There are only one day gaps between matches and we are allowed only 20 players with no replacements."
Forward Supachok Sarachat admitted that Ekanit's absence would weaken the Thai attack, but added: "I think we will qualify for the semi-finals but we must not underestimate any team. In fact, we have a good chance of winning the gold medal."
Meanwhile, FAT president Pol Gen Somyot Poompunmuang revealed that the decision to extend Nishino's contract by another two years was "to ensure continuous development of the national teams.
"Nishino has been coaching both the national senior and U23 sides and we believe that it is important that he should continue in the same role a bit longer.
"Since Nishino and the FAT also has the same idea and he is interested in staying with the Thai teams, we have mutually agreed to extend the contract.
"We all must understand we cannot become successful overnight. It will take time so we have to be patient."