The Buriram United – PPT Rayong game in the Thai League that was supposed to take place on Saturday was postponed, the official reason being due to the level of PM2.5-pollutants in the air. But, the reported levels don´t really back that explanation up and rumours have had it the match was really moved to let the hegemons focus on Tuesday´s home clash with Beijing Guoan in the AFC Champions League. Buriram have made it their mission to improve on last year´s round of 16 exit and, despite the tall order this may be, Thunder Castle´s home win against K-League champions Jeonbuk in the previous round makes the first step of progressing from a very tough group (the fourth team being Urawa Red Diamonds who beat Buriram 3 goals to nil in Japan) plausible. For the Isaan-boys to repeat and surpass their own 2018 continental performance they will have to rely on their home form so this game is crucial to one of the main objectives of the new season.
Despite going into the weekend as league leaders, only to have dropped to second place with a game in hand following Port FC´s dismantling of joint top side PT Prachuap, Buriram have failed to impress so far. Due largely, of course, to the standard they´ve set in previous years. The big question mark ahead of the season was whether marquee-signing Modibo Maïga would be able to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Diogo. The Brazilian have been a dominating force all on his own for a few years and have continued his to apply his trade in the same fashion at Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) since his winter transfer. As far as his replacement goes, let´s just say the former West Ham United-striker is lucky a couple of the homegrown youngsters of Buriram have picked up some of the slack. Diogo won more than a few games, more or less, singlehandedly in 2018 and Maïga has yet to contribute anything of value to his new employer, making the Thai League look like a far more unpredictable affair in 2019. Still, Buriram will be in that to the very end and showed against Jeonbuk that they´ve built a foundation for becoming a regular performer in the ACL as well.
The visitors travel from the Chinese capital with a perfect record from four league games, but only a single point in their opening two ACL games so far. In a tournament where home advantage counts for a lot, Guoan lost away to Jeonbuk in the first round and where then held to a goalless draw by visiting Urawa Reds in the second. The overall quality is not new to Buriram but playing against a trio of top-class opponents like Jonathan Viera, Cedric Bakambu and Renato Augusto is a rare thing in Asian football. With the aerial ability of South Korean starlet centre-back Kim Minjae, who turned down a move to Watford in the English Premiership to join Guoan, and the individual quality Zhang Xizhe added to the foreign firepower, the Buriram defence will be up for a massive test.
With Maïga firing blanks, Buriram´s hopes of scoring rests largely on their up-and-coming attacking Thai players (namely Supachai Jaided and Supachok Sarachart, who´s scored 3 in 6 in the T1 and his clubs only goal so far in the ACL) and Asia wandering Brazilian striker Pedro Júnior. This is just the type of matches that I expected Hajime Hosogai was brought in for, but with the experienced Japanese midfielder getting rejected for his clubs AFC-player quota in favour of the very promising Vietnamese youngster Luong Xuan Truong, that option is off the table. Leaving Ratthanakorn Maikami and Sasalak Haiprakhon to deal with Guoan´s attacking midfield and help the back five by stopping the ball from reaching Bakambu. While Andrés Túñez and Pansa Hemviboon will be crucial in handling the precise deliveries from set-pieces.
This should be an interesting one, Guoan can produce some fantastic performances on their day, but Buriram is becoming a well-established presence at this level of the Asian game and will fancy their chances of another upset. All the pressure will be on the visitors who cannot afford to lose at this point of the group stage if they want to have a decent chance at progressing and, being from Beijing, they would probably have felt more comfortable playing in the alleged smog of Saturday rather than the 35 degrees Celsius expected at kick-off.