A point or nothing, Thailand – Iraq, AFC U23 preview

After a very poor second half, that undid all the good work put in before the break against Australia on Saturday, has left the hosts of the 2020 AFC U23 Championships/Olympic Games Qualifiers in second place in Group A ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Iraq. But, given how the two opening matches have unfolded, the Young War Elephants should be feeling quite positive about the prospect of advancing to the knockout stages. The 5-0 thrashing of Bahrain was a display of fantastic attacking football, but also of some glaringly obvious defensive problems. The 2-1 defeat to Australia was not as shaky at the back, and even though Australia deserved to win in the end, they really struggled to create anything much before the physical differences between the two sides started to take its toll on Thailand. Offensively, the Thais created nothing after the break but created enough chances before half time to have won the game on another day. However, the loss is not the only thing to leave some dark shades on the Thai footballing palette, an even bigger worry will be two forced substitutions on Supachai Jaided and, more importantly, 17-year old wunderkind Suphanat Mueanta that saw any attacking threat completely evaporate. If these two aren’t ready to play, it will make the game against Iraq all the much harder for a team dreaming Olympic participation in the summer.

The opposition is unbeaten, but also without a win, after two rounds. Having come back from 0-1 to secure a draw against Australia, a result perhaps more impressive than the performance behind it, and going behind twice to earn a point in the last minute against Bahrain. Showing some fighting spirit in both games but fighting back from behind won’t be enough as they now need 3 points to have any chance of advancing in the tournament. While the equaliser against Australia was the result of some top individual quality, both goals against Bahrain came from crosses, which could prove an equally very potent weapon against the Thai defence.

With the expected starters available, Thailand should be considered slight favourites, based on home advantage as well as previous games in the competition, but with Ekanit Panya withdrawn from the squad before the tournament had even started, losing Suphanat could prove extremely costly. Still, a draw doesn’t look an impossible feat, even without the Great Thai Hope on the pitch.

Closing the books on the 2019 Thaileague (4/4)

Time flies, the fourth and final part of the 2019 T1 review is already upon us. A title race defined by everyone seemingly doing what they could to avoid coming out on top ended in a massive upset, while the other three were the prime suspects ahead of the season.

4.Bangkok United(1)

Failed to utilize what looked like a great transfer strategy and build on their very good 2018. The performances were not as solid and the tactical foundation they could earlier rely so much was not at all as obvious as previously, illustrated by the shaky nature of the season with considerable ups and downs in form along the way, and their disciplinary problems got even bigger than they were in the year before. Offensively the team became too reliant on the individual performances of Nelson Bonilla and Vander Luiz, even though it performed better overall when one or both of those players were unavailable. A year they will try to put behind themselves as quickly as possible.

3.Port FC(3)

Spent a lot of money before the season, as is becoming customary, yet only adding a couple of potential starters and keeping the core of players from 2018. Got off to a good start but struggled against the other title contenders and also dropped a significant amount of points in supposedly easy games. 2 points from 6 mid-season games saw them fall behind their rivals which prompted the club to change their manager and again spend big in the transfer market. A subsequent good run of form saw them claw their way back into the race but ultimately, it cost them any real chance they had at the title. However, a second consecutive third place finish, along with an end to a decade long title draught via an FA Cup-title that secured a place in the ACL playoffs, made the season a successful one.

2.Buriram United(2)

Diogo Luis Santo moved to Malaysian JDT, and took Burirams dominance with him. The club tried several new foreign attackers over the course of the season and no one worked out. Even after a start of 10 unbeaten games, it was glaringly obvious that the reigning champions was nowhere near the force they used to be. A few extremely unexpected defeats and a number of unnecessary draws at any stage where it looked like Buriram would put some distance between themselves and their competitors, but with an impressive and promising group of Thai players, Buriram still found themselves travelling to face an already relegated Chiangmai FC as league leaders on the last day of the campaign. It took 53 minutes to break the deadlock, and then it looked like they would still edge it to regain the trophy, but a late equaliser changed everything and Buriram United meant Chiangrai United snuck past them ended up celebrating their 10-year anniversary without a single piece of silverware to show for it. A massive disappointment to chairman Newin who had already requested for the FA to hand out the league trophy back home in Isaan.

1.Chiangrai United(7)

What to say about Chiangrai United? Knowing the club had won 3 cup titles (2 FA, 1 League Cup) in the previous two seasons, maybe it shouldn’t have been this much of surprise that it is a competitive side. However, cups and leagues are very different things and no one expected this. It is clearly a result of very successful recruitment over a long period of time, but as mentioned before, not an uncontroversial win, given the club had an effective B-team in the same league in the form of Chiangmai FC, that also happened to snatch the last round draw against Buriram that meant Chiangrai could win it all. Ekanit Panya benefitted massively from his loan spell at Chiangmai and was recalled in mid-season to inject the extra bit of quality needed to see it through. With four games to go, Chiangrai was two points clear at the top of the table, but consecutive draws mean they appeared to have squandered the opportunity and had to rely on Buriram making another mess of things on closing night. It all worked out and Chiangrai broke the dominance of Buriram and Muanghtong United to become only the third club to become champions of Thailand in ten years.

Closing the books on the 2019 Thaileague (3/4)

Already done with the bottom half and into the upper regions we go, four sides that stayed clear of any real risk and performed about as expected with one big exception. Whether they will be happy or not with their season, here comes teams 5, 6, 7, and 8:

8.Ratchaburi Mitr Pohl FC(10)

Despite the customary chaos and changing of head coaches that the club has become somewhat famous for, perhaps also responsible for the poor start to the season, Ratburi significantly improved on their disappointing 2018, very much thanks to the outstanding performances of Martiniquais attacker Steven Langil. Even came close to some silverware and a place in the ACL qualifiers but finally lost the FA Cup-final against Port FC after VAR made a spectacularly poor return to Thai football.

7.Chonburi FC(6)

Like Ratchaburi, and despite a promising open day draw away to Buriram United, Chonburi started out 2019 looking like they would struggle to survive. mid-season managerial change resulted in the many new players finally starting to function as a unit, even though the outstanding individual performer Lukian Araujo was lost to Japanese Jubile Iwata for basically nothing after a former chairman decided to try to help out and epically messing up, and the team shot up the table, finally landing just one short of the predicted 6th place.

6.Samut Prakan City FC(11)

Overall a very successful first year, not only in T1 but in any competition, for the club who took over Pattaya United’s license. Punching far above their weight and fighting for the top spots for quite some time, before losing their manager and starting to perform more in accordance to the individual quality in the squad. It was a season of two halves, the first so good that SPCFC secured 6th place, despite playing like a relegation candidate for the second one.

5.Muangthong United(4)

Just like Samut Prakan, MTU had a season of two halves, but a reversed one. It took two managerial changes before a true expert in Thai football success, Alexandre Gama, came in to sort out the mess that a complete and utter disaster that was the first half of the season. With 13 points at the halfway point, it actually looked like the four-time league champions were in danger of relegation. After Gama put his magic touch to the squad, they played like title contenders but it was too little, too late, for 2019 to bring any real success. Still, more or less meeting expectations over the course of the year.

Closing the books on the 2019 Thaileague (2/4)

Moving on from the bottom four, its time to look at the quartet of teams who managed to squeeze into the safer spots in the upper end of the bottom half. None of the predictions proved exact but these were generally within an acceptable margin of error, some very close. Here comes team 9 through 12.

12.Sukhothai FC(14)

Sukhothai proved a hard nut to crack for most of their opponents during 2019, starting with eight games unbeaten and drawing more than half their games over the course of the season. With 37 goals conceded, a defensive record only the top 4 in the league managed to beat, there should have been enough stability to avoid a relegation battle. But Sukhothai only managed to equal that tally at the other end, it seems relying completely on one player to sort out the goals isn’t a completely reliable strategy, even if that player is John Baggio, The Magnificent Malagasy. Sukhothai actually found themselves in the predicted 14th spot going into the three finishing rounds and didn’t manage to climb out of it until the very last day of the season after an uncharacteristic gung-ho 4-2 win away at Korat.

11.PTT Rayong(8)

I had based my prediction of an upper half finish for newly promoted PTT Rayong largely on my lingering belief in Jay Emmanuel-Thomas from he first introduced himself with some promising performances at Arsenal, and the presence of the ultimate “love to have him on your team, hate him playing for anyone else” player Victor Cardozo. Let’s just say some trust was misplaced, and some thoughts were annoyingly correct in this instance. After a couple of initial defeats, the newcomers found their footing and had a rather impressive first, and as it would prove last, season in T1. Relegation was never really on the cards, but the club still announced it would quit the league and, allegedly, focus on its youth operations. Very sad given it was one of the very nice, and newly constructed, purpose build football stadium in a seaside town. Luckily, Rayong will still have a team in the elite level of Thai footie in 2020 as Rayong FC was promoted from T2.

10.Trat FC(13)

The last of the new boys, not only managing to stay up but doing so with some margin. Made some very successful signing, with T1 top scorer Lonsana Doumbouya as the standout, and could well have finished even higher up, had it not been for a poor run of form that brought only 3p from the last 6 rounds.

9.PT Prachuap(12)

Came nowhere near to repeating the top 6 finish of 2018, but tackled the loss of the best attacking duo in T1 that year, Jonatan Reis and Lonsana Doumbouya, very well, outperforming the predicted 12th place by 3 whole spots. A rocky season, including a good start, mediocre middle, and very strong finish proved the southernmost club in the league is being run very shrewdly and in the T1 to stay.