Al-Ain (United Arab Emirates) (AFP) – Thailand looked in disarray when they sacked their coach one game into the Asian Cup but the War Elephants, inspired by their very own “Messi”, are now dreaming of greater things.

Milovan Rajevac’s dismissal following the 4-1 defeat to India seems to have galvanised the Thais, who then beat Bahrain and drew 1-1 with hosts UAE to reach the knockout rounds for the first time in a generation.

The contribution of the bleach-blond “Thai Messi”, Chanathip Songkrasin, cannot be underestimated after he scored a sublime winner against Bahrain and set up the equaliser as Thailand fought back to draw 1-1 with UAE late on Monday.

Interim coach Sirisak Yodyadthai said a change of mindset was key as Thailand scrambled out of the group stage for the first time since 1972, when they finished third as tournament hosts.

“After defeat against India, things weren’t looking so good for our team. But when I came in I felt that things needed to change,” said Sirisak, who was all smiles after finishing second in Group A.

“I inserted determination and motivation for the players and during the last two games I know that the players were determined to play well and make a positive result for the Thai team. 

“So here we are — I’m so happy to make history for the Thai national team.”

– Thai Messi –

Thailand yielded a physical advantage to the bigger and stronger UAE team but they were not to be cowed, hitting back through Thitiphan Puangjan after conceding an early goal.

Consadole Sapporo midfielder Chanathip, 25, has been one of the players of the Asian Cup so far, as the host nation found when they struggled to contain the Thai star.

“We have been through a lot of things but it’s the team spirit that united us,” said the 158cm (5ft 3 ins) Chanathip after the Bahrain draw, according to Thai newspaper The Nation.

While Thailand lost their coach and went on to qualify, it was the reverse for India who failed to go through and then saw their coach, Stephen Constantine, resign.

Meanwhile UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni was left demanding more as the hosts squandered their one-goal lead against Thailand in a frustrating end to their group games. 

Zaccheroni said he realised that after two tame draws and a win to qualify from Group A, the team wasn’t living up to the expectations of home fans with only 17,000 at Al Ain’s 26,000-capacity Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium on Monday.

“Today I was expecting a better performance. We controlled the game, scored an early goal but then we conceded a goal and we lost concentration,” Zaccheroni said.

“We didn’t take advantage of the fact that we’re playing at home in front of our own fans. I know that the fans aren’t happy with our performances — we have to do better from now on.”