Thailand fires coach Rajevac after Asian Cup loss to India

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Thailand’s head coach Milovan Rajevac reacts during the AFC Asian Cup group A soccer match between Thailand and India at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Thailand’s head coach Milovan Rajevac reacts during the AFC Asian Cup group A soccer match between Thailand and India at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Bangkok (AP) — The Football Association of Thailand fired Milovan Rajevac as head coach after the national football team’s 4-1 opening loss to India at the Asian Cup last Sunday.

Thai FA president Somyot Poompanmoung had warned ahead of the continental tournament that Rajevac’s job was on the line if he couldn’t take the team to the second round.

He announced the decision to fire Rajevac after Sunday’s game in Abu Dhabi, despite Thailand still having group games against Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to play.

In a statement released early Monday he said, “It was not the playing format that Thai FA and the team supporters desired. I hereby announce the suspension of the contract with Milovan Rajevac as the coach of Thailand’s national team.”

Assistant Sirisak Yodyathai will take over as interim head coach for the tournament.

Rajevac was hired as the Thailand head coach in April 2017 to replace Kiatsisak Senamuang and had been under increasing pressure since Thailand failed to defend the AFF Cup title last month, losing to Malaysia in the semifinals on away goal rules.

The 65-year-old Serbian was voted the African confederation’s coach of the year in 2010 after guiding Ghana to the World Cup quarterfinals.

India’s Sunil Chhetri overtook Lionel Messi to become the second highest-scoring active international player by netting two goals in the win over Thailand. Chhetri moved onto 66 goals, one more than Messi. Only Cristiano Ronaldo (85) is ahead of him.

Anirudh Thapa and Jeje Lalpekhlua also scored for India, who climbed atop Group A above host nation United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who drew 1-1 on Saturday.

In the first big shock of the 2019 tournament, Jordan — the world’s 109th-ranked team — pulled off one of the biggest wins in their history by beating Australia 1-0 on Sunday.

Anas Bani Yaseen was the match-winner, finding space following a short-corner routine by Jordan to guide in a near-post header in the 26th minute.

Jordan had just 24 percent possession in the match and rode their luck under severe pressure in the second half, with Awer Mabil hitting the post for Australia and Jamie Maclaren having a goal disallowed for a narrow offside.

Thailand’s Chalermpong Kerdka (left) fights for the ball with India’s Sunil Chhetri during their teams’ AFC Asian Cup group A match in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Thailand’s Chalermpong Kerdka (left) fights for the ball with India’s Sunil Chhetri during their teams’ AFC Asian Cup group A match in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

After Jordan goalkeeper Amer Shafi produced a double save in the last attack of the match, the referee blew the final whistle and Jordan’s players sank to their knees and clutched their heads.

“This will hurt everyone, I know that,” Australia captain Mark Milligan said. “It’s hurting me at the minute.”

Australia, the second-best team in the Asian conference behind Iran, have been in a similar position before at the Asian Cup — in 2007, the Socceroos drew their opener to Oman and then lost 3-1 to Iraq, only to qualify for the knockout stage by thrashing Thailand 4-0 in their last group game.

On Sunday, the Australians couldn’t break down a packed Jordan defensive line, resorting in the end to long balls into the penalty area.

Jordan’s defender Anas Bani Yaseen (front left) celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal against Australia in their AFC Asian Cup group B match in Al Ain, UAE, Sunday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Jordan’s defender Anas Bani Yaseen (front left) celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal against Australia in their AFC Asian Cup group B match in Al Ain, UAE, Sunday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

“I just think we were a little lethargic in our ball movement,” Milligan said.

“We know we have to be better if we want to progress and succeed in this tournament.”

The 2019 edition of the Asian Cup is the biggest ever, with 24 teams involved — mirroring the expansion made by the European Championship for its most recent tournament in 2016. It is taking place against the backdrop of a diplomatic crisis in the gulf region.