Buriram Utd, preview of ACL vs. Beijing Guoan

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.

 

The continued rise of PT Prachuap

Following the departures of the attacking force of Jonatan Reis and Lonsana Doumbouya, that led the club to a fantastic 6th place finish in their first year in the top tier with a combined tally of 42 league goals, I had them pegged to struggle this season. Of course, it´s far too early to say but with the start that they´ve had, with wins against Muangthong and PTT Rayong, and the only loss coming away to Buriram, there´s good reason to suspect the 2018 performance was made possible by a solid foundation, rather than individual quality at the front. The new strikers, Matheus Alves and Caion, had already bagged 1 and 2 goals respectively, which further indicates a club that is working with a purpose and carefully plans its transfer activities. I hadn´t been able to catch any of their first three matches so I was looking forward to tonight´s encounter with Chainat that would give me the chance to form my own first hand opinion of the side.

Visiting Chainat, on the other hand, stayed up with more than a little help from the referee on the final day of last year´s campaign, and will likely be in the relegation-battle again and had started this season with three consecutive draws.

Chainat started much higher up the pitch than expected and could well have been ahead early on but Prachuap quickly started winning inches and after 23 minutes the hosts took the lead as Matheus Alves found Caion with a well weighted cross into the box. One must question the lack of pressure before the delivery and the virtually non-existing marking of the scorer, but the Brazilian duo couldn´t very well have done more with the space they were given. Far from complete control, Ricardo Santos could´ve scored but tried a Kanu-style backheel that didn´t come off at all, and totally solid but Prachuap was the better side. Uzbeki/Armenian Artyom Filiposian looked a great signing at defensive midfield but was lucky not to be in the book early on as his tough style of play was, at times, over the line in my opinion. The luck continued for Prachuap as a penalty, that would likely have been overturned if VAR was in use this round, as Alves was brought down but the replays showed the defender got a clear touch at the ball first. Caion didn´t mind and converted from the spot for his second of the night, his second (and Prachuap´s third out of seven in total) penalty-goal of the season. The second goal came in stoppage time but it took a massively important stop from Teerath Nakchamnarn keep it from going to three before the end of this very entertaining half of football, as Alves was clean through with the keeper.

The game became even more intense in the second half as Chainat pushed forward and Prachuap could break repeatedly. Both sides had come close to scoring on several occasions after 20 minutes of what was now an end-to-end affair but it was Chainat who finally did as Ricardo Santos was played clean through a failed offside trap and found the back of the net with a lovely dink past the keeper. It was, however, Prachuap´s night, less than 10 minutes after Santos´ goal, the home side was awarded a soft free-kick just outside the penalty area and up stepped Chitpanya Tisud. The initial shot went low and straight into the wall but the bounce fell perfectly for the Buriram-loanee who hammered home a volley to make it 3-1. After that, Chainat couldn´t find the strength to threaten Prachuap, who were content to lower the tempo and see it through. Leaving Chainat to travel home to the banks of the Chao Phraya-river carrying the burden of the season´s first defeat. Although not bad, they gave me very little reason to question my decision to name them as one of my bottom three teams ahead of the season.

It´s only one game, but with the results so far and their success with signing foreign players especially I must say I´m very impressed with Prachuap. Not only are the strikers producing an amazing return but Filiposian also looked a perfect fit. I now expect to be embarrassed by them when I go revisit my predictions, that had them battling relegation, at the end of the season. They look more like a club moving towards establishing themselves in the top half of the Thai League.

Thai League 2019: My predictions

It´s only hours left until the start of the new league season and I´m making a go at foreseeing the future of each participant. I have a very good sense of how I see the upper half panning out but I must admit, it gets tougher and tougher the closer to the bottom three I get. Especially as I didn´t watch any League 2 last year I have very little to base this on more than gut feeling, 2018 results and transfers made during the winter. Anyway we´ll jump right into it from the top and make our way down.

  1. Bangkok United

Four consecutive top-4 finishes (4-2-3-2) and I think the time has come for Mano Pölking´s team to make that last push and overtake Buriram at the top. They looked the most well organised team in the league last year and with some very good activity in the transfer market (Nelson Bonilla a contender for the golden boot, I mean 25 goals for Sukhothai is just silly, and Tristán Do just adding heaps of quality to the squad) to fine tune an already impressive style of play, I think they will have the consistency to grab the top spot in the end. Oh, and Danish-Filipino goalkeeper, Michael Falkesgaard is a level above the rest in this division.

 

  1. Buriram United

We´re safe to assume the dominant force in Thai football will be in it to the very end and going from 16 points clear to a second place finish in one year sounds a massive decline. However, despite adding some big names (Modibo Maïga, Hajime Hosogai and Pedro Júnior) I still think losing the outstanding player in the league (Diogo, of course), and then the player who was supposed to take over much of his responsibility (Osvaldo) at the very end of the transfer window, could well mean 10 points less in a full season. Bangkok United adding around 9 to their total tally is equally fathomable and the huge difference from last year is then gone with the wind.

 

  1. Port FC

Surprisingly inactive in the transfer market but the few additions made looks like they´re carefully selected to improve overall quality and add some depth, especially, in central midfield (Ko Seul Gi and Sumanya Purisai). With the team´s biggest problem last year being a lack of consistency, having tougher competition in it´s key area on the pitch might be just what´s needed to grind out those extra few points and consolidate last year´s top 3-finish.

 

  1. Muangthong United

First, we need to address the club slogan for the year, “Football´s Coming Home”. Could be top, top banter but, unfortunately I don´t sense even a whiff of irony in it. The club that likes to consider itself the biggest one in Thailand finished one point shy of rivals Port last year and claim to be gunning for its 5th league title. I really don´t see that happening, despite the very impressive offensive signings of Mario Gjurovski and Aung Thu. Departures (Naoaki Ayoama and Tristán Do) are too big and the team is looking extremely unbalanced and top heavy. Hope of improving on last year´s position is very much reliant on new goalkeeper, Vietnamese international Dang Van Lam, challenging Michael Falkesgaard for the place as the best in the league.

 

  1. Suphanburi

Showed more potential during parts of 2018 than their 10th place finish suggests. So did Kim Sung Hwan who´s joined the club after his debut year in Thai football at Port and will try to become the playmaker he´s moved south to be. But most of all, the front two is second to none in this division. Cleiton Silva has stayed on following his loan spell from Chiangrai United and even though he´s failed to reach the heights of his Muangthong days since returning from his adventure in China, he´s still a proven goal scorer and will get his fair share as usual. Alongside him, he will have the second best attacker in the league last year, Jonatan Reis. Between them, they bagged 40 league goals in 2018 and two attackers with their technical ability will be more than a handful for any defence.

 

  1. Chonburi FC

This is a club that slowly but steadily is making its way back to the top of Thai football. Played some very nice football last year and have had an extremely active transfer window. If the pieces fall into place early on they will be able surprise quite a few people this year.

 

  1. Chiangrai United

A tough opponent for any side, formidably illustrated by the team forcing Sanfrecce Hiroshima to a penalty shootout in the ACL playoff earlier in the week. However, the club seems to be in a bit of disarray with the departure of newly appointed manager José Borges less than two weeks before the start of the new season and have suffered a tough transfer window so I expect them to drop a couple of spots from their 5th place last year.

 

  1. PTT Rayong

Based on the fact they won the T2 last year, are backed by a big company and have made a couple of truly great signings, I think the seaside town will have a great first year of T1 football to look forward to. The standout signings are former Chiangrai centre-back Victor Cardozo, who will lead from the back while getting a couple of goals to his name, but also, and most of all, one of my own personal favourites ever to come through the Arsenal academy, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. JET has the ability and physique to dominate many opponents in the league and I think he will make a huge difference, assuming he finds his place in a very different culture than he´s used to.

 

  1. Nakhon Ratchasima FC

The Swatcats had a surprisingly successful 2018, finishing in an impressive 7th place. However, they were merely 5 points ahead of Bangkok Glass in the relegation zone and 1 ahead of 10th placed Suphanburi. This year will likely be tougher but the club has addressed the problem it had with getting the ball in the back of the net by signing a couple of more than capable attackers (Bernard Henry and Amadou Ouattara) and should have no problem securing another mid-table finish.

 

  1. Ratchaburi Mitr Pohl

Shouldn´t be as close to the relegation zone as they were last year (12). A few players have moved on but they´ve all been replaced and the team is looking stronger on paper. Especially, Yannick Boli, nephew of former French international Basile Boli, who brings some much-needed edge to the front line.

 

  1. Samut Prakan City

The club has kept most of the squad that saw former license holders, Pattaya United, finish 8 in the previous year. Even despite having lost Lukian to Chonburi, the new entity should avoid relegation and stay in the top division in its first ever year of football.

 

  1. PT Prachuap FC

Losing both Jonatan Reis and Lonsana Doumbouya should mean any hopes of finishing in the top half of the table are gone, let alone repeating last year´s impressive 6th place finish. Could fall even harder and end up in the T2 in 2020 but there are still a few clubs that look worse off than Prachuap, who still have some quality in the squad.

 

  1. Trat FC

Finished second in T2 last year behind PTT Rayong and will struggle but, ultimately, I think their signings have been good enough to make the step up to T1 manageable. My judgement may be impaired by the fact that I´m writing this on a lovely island in the Trat district but I see at least another year in the top division in their future.

 

  1. Sukhothai FC

Dangerously close to relegation (4p) last year and, despite being very active in the transfer market, the loss of Nelson Bonilla to Bangkok United will prove to hard.

 

  1. Chainat Hornbill FC

Pulled off a great escape to stay ahead of Bangkok Glass in the final round of last year´s T1. I´m not the one to make accusations so I´ll just say the referee in that final game was… unlucky and that made Chainat lucky enough to get their second soft penalty of the night and secure the win needed to stay up with the final kick of the season. But, their luck will run out and relegation is on the cards.

 

  1. Chiangmai FC

The final team to win promotion last year will also be the first to get relegated. The squad simply doesn´t look strong enough, despite sister clubs BG Pathum United and Chiangrai United loaning out everything they can muster.

Thai League football ftw!

I would like to start by adressing the fact that my latest post was about seven months ago, the reason for this is a half year spell on parental leave that left me with the same insight as so many people before me have had already, and so many will in the future will have. Namely, parental leave is a form of ”time off” that really doesn´t entail any free time. I hope this new year will allow me to be a lot more active here, although parenthood in combination with studies will certainly see periods where there just isn´t anough hours in the day to do everything. But, as the new season approaches, I´ve decided to make a new start as well and change the focus of my writing from Chinese to Thai football. I will still follow the CSL but will mostly be watching Chinese sides when playing in the ACL. There are several reasons behind this choice, the main one being the fact that being in Thailand and attending the game in person has created a strong connection to the League and, in the spirit of full disclosure, Port Football Club.
Another deciding factor has been that the CSL, despite claiming ambitions of international recognition, actually became harder to watch in 2018 than in 2017. Finding sources to watch the matches with even remotely acceptable reliability, whether in Sweden or Thailand, was simply too much of a hassle.

So, considering said post was in fact an interview with a player in the Thai League, one could say I´ve already made the transition. However, it was not the plan at the time so I really want to consider this the time for the shift. And what better time make it than on the day China will play Iran in the quarter final, after emphatically sending Thailand packing, in the Asian Cup?

For closure, I will review my predictions about the 2018 CSL season now that the results are in. I did hold Shanghai SIPG as my favourites to bring home the championship and end the Guangzhou Evergrande domination. This came to pass and my argument was Evergrande´s lack of a proper replacement for Paulinho and I must say I still consider this the biggest reason for their failure to retain the title. Once Paulinho returned from Barcelona, and yes Anderson Talisca did play a major role in this as well, Evergrande suddenly found their footing and made a serious push to overtake SIPG in the title-race. My prediction of Hebei being the third challenger turned out to be far off with them ending up in sixth place, 29 points behind SIPG. Also, I viewed Tianjin Quanjian as a ACL spot candidate without mentioning Shandong Luneng at all, which turned out to be completely wrong. I did, however, get Beijing Guoan and Jiangsu Suning challenging for continental competition qualification right.

So looking forward, the fixture list for the 2019 Thai League 1-season that starts next month is out and the work identifying possible away days is in full swing. Hopefully, there will be some groundhopping with accompanying reports to come. Watch this space!