Thailand fail to land killer blow as Group of Death heats up

Thailand’s 0-0 draw in Vietnam has to go down as an opportunity missed as the War Elephants ended the evening third in their Group G 2020 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Last week’s defeat in Malaysia had left the Thais with an uphill task at the home of Southeast Asia’s rising stars but Akira Nishino’s side recovered well after a poor start and should have taken the three points.

Here are five things we saw in Thailand’s draw in Vietnam on Tuesday.

  1. No resolution to Southeast Asia debate

There have been clear shifts in power in Southeast Asian football over the past 18 months but two goalless draws between arguably the two best sides in the region have failed to provide a definitive answer regarding who is now best.

It can certainly be argued that Vietnam’s defence is stronger and again they proved a formidable barrier, protected by some relentless pressing in front of them, particularly in the first hour. However, Thailand showed more ambition and invention in the final third and should probably have been rewarded for their late pressure.


Photo credit: Changsuek

Malaysia, of course, have entered the debate. Having seen off whipping boys Indonesia twice and beaten Thailand at home, they now have a tough run of fixtures to come in their attempt to prove they can now match their rivals.

It is certainly an exciting period for international football in the region, with the three teams evenly matched. The debate will continue into Matchday Six in March when the battle to reach the next stage intensifies as Malaysia travel to UAE and Thailand host Indonesia.

  1. Theerathon remains vital 

Theerathon Bunmathan has long been one of the best players in the national side and his performance in Vietnam again demonstrated his value to the team. While he was suspended in Malaysia last week, the team lost shape and confidence in the face of an energetic performance from their opponents.

Once Thailand had recovered from a nervous start in Hanoi, it was Theerathon who was instrumental in helping his team settle and ultimately gain control of the match. His probing passes pushed Vietnam back and he started to spend more time in the opposition half, providing much-needed width. Even after he had missed his penalty, he brushed it off and moved on.


Photo credit: Changsuek

In defence, he combined well with the centre-backs, tucking in and providing cover when necessary, while also making some key challenges. At the end, his lethal left foot almost earned Thailand the breakthrough direction from a corner.

Theerathon now returns to Japan to battle for a J.League title with Yokohama F. Marinos. It would be fitting reward for such a fine player to add a J.League winners medal to the five Thai titles he has won.

  1. Nishino shows stubborn streak

Much has been made of Ekanit Panya’s brilliant breakthrough year for club and country and his winning performance against the UAE ensured he would start against Malaysia last week, despite Chanathip Songkrasin’s return from injury.

But the three-pronged attacking midfield of Chanathip, Ekanit and Supachok Sarachat failed to deliver the goods in Kuala Lumpur and it seemed logical that a change would be made. However, the front six remained the same and the three attacking midfielders struggled to find and make space as Vietnam pressed hard.


Photo credit: Changsuek

Nishino took a long time to make changes and saw Ekanit and Supachok miss good late chances before replacing them. The head coach seems to have a clear playing philosophy but with Ekanit in particular at such a young age, he might need to show a little more flexibility.

Sasalak Haiprakhon, Bodin Phala and Siwakorn Tiatrakul all sat on the bench as the youngster found it tough. In Nishino’s defence, Thailand did eventually wear down the Vietnamese, but the energy of earlier substitutions may have resulted in an even greater impact.

  1. Quiet night for star playmakers 

If there is a debate about the best team in Southeast Asia, there is also a growing discussion over the identity of the best player in the region. While Theerathon again staked his own claim for that title, Chanathip Songkrasin has probably held the crown for the past three years.

The 26-year-old’s rise to be one of the stars of the J.League has been testament to his quality, while he has also become more influential for the national side.

Vietnam have a rising star of their own in 22-year-old Nguyen Quang Hai, a different kind of playmaker but also one with formidable talents. The match in Hanoi was an opportunity for the heir apparent to prove that he may be ready to make his move for the crown, but the Vietnamese star had a disappointing game and was kept very quiet.


Photo credit: Changsuek

Chanathip also found himself on the periphery for much of the match and only really started to exert his influence as Vietnam’s energy levels dropped in the final 20 minutes.

While both players have had better nights, Chanathip had more influence on this match. Having starred in the AFC Champions League for Muang Thong United before heading to Consadole Sapporo at the age of 23, the Thai star’s career has had an upward trajectory.

Quang Hai will have to soon escape the limited confines of Hanoi FC if he is to develop in the same way and fulfill his huge potential.

  1. Referee leaves everyone unhappy 

Thailand were just beginning to assert themselves when Omani referee Ahmed Alkaf awarded them a penalty for a light push on Manuel Bihr. It was the kind of challenge that goes unpunished at corners 19 times out of 20, leaving Vietnam understandably aggrieved.

The penalty miss lifted the home side and they thought they were in front a couple of minutes later when Tien Dung headed home from a corner. But the goal was disallowed for Doan Can Hau’s challenge on goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan. Given Kawin’s poorly timed jump, the War Elephants clearly got lucky but it was a foul as the keeper took an elbow to the head.

At this point, Vietnamese fans were sensing a conspiracy and as Phitiwat Sukjithammakul’s foul count rose without being booked, their anger increased.

However, the referee was becoming increasingly erratic and his failure to spot a clear handball from a Theerathon cross was poor. Several fouls by both sides went unpunished, while there were whistles for innocuous challenges.


Photo credit: Changsuek

The most controversial moment of the second half came when a disgraceful challenge by Trong Hoang on Supachok Sarachat earned just a yellow card when it should clearly have been a red. The Vietnamese star soon followed up on his violent challenge by collapsing theatrically to the turf when Chanathip brushed past him.

While it would not have affected the final outcome, the referee again failed dismally to follow the rules when Trong Hoang – yes, him again – cynically hacked down a breaking Teerasil Dangda in added time. A second yellow was the easies decision of the night but the referee bottled it.

Refereeing standards in Thailand may be poor but they clearly leave much to be desired in other Asian countries.

Tall order for dejected Thailand as they take on in-form Vietnam

Only a win will do when Thailand face Vietnam on Matchday Five of their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Thursday’s limp defeat in Malaysia leaves them in the kind of win-or-bust scenario they would have wanted to avoid against arguably the strongest side in a very evenly matched Group G.

All of the positivity generated by a landmark win over UAE last month evaporated in 90 painful minutes in Kuala Lumpur and head coach Akira Nishino must turn things around very quickly or Thailand can forget about reaching the next stage of qualifying.

Here are three things to look out for when Thailand play Vietnam in Hanoi.

  1. Focus on the defence 

Nishino has failed to rid Thailand of the defensive lapses that may ultimately prove so costly. While there were many issues with the performance against Malaysia, the defending for the two goals was dismal.

Brendan Gan was surrounded by Thai players when he still found enough space to slot home the equaliser. A dreadfully misguided attempt to play the offside trap led to the second, though we shouldn’t ignore the quality of Gan’s pass and Sumareh’s excellent finish.


Photo credit: Changsuek

You can’t help feeling that making three changes to the defence – only one of them necessary – was not helpful. Tanaboon Kesarat’s defending has been understandably criticised but was the Bukit Jalil the right place to throw Elias Dolah in for his first start in place of someone with 50 caps?

More confusing was the decision to play Tristan Do ahead of Nitipong Selanon. Nitipong has been in the form of his life and was outstanding against the UAE. Do, meanwhile, has suffered several injury setbacks over a generally disappointing season. Do’s limited match fitness was sometimes evident on Thursday, though the errors that led to the goals were more the result of a collective failure as a unit rather than individual blunders.

The return of Theerathon Bunmathan at left-back will be most welcome but there are decisions to be made at centre-back and right-back.

  1. Three’s a crowd 

The decision to play three diminutive attacking midfielders looked great on paper on Thursday and it was all going to plan when two of them combined for an early opening goal. Unfortunately, the talented trio of Chanathip Songkrasin, Supachok Sarachat and Ekanit Panya could not keep Malaysia on the back foot and it began to look a misguided tactic.

It is highly unlikely that Nishino will start all three again, with reinforcements in a deeper midfield role more likely. The absence of Thitipan Puangchan is keenly felt but Sasalak Haiprakhon could be a good option for his energy and ability to play in different positions. There is also the option of pushing Tanaboon into the midfield anchor role, freeing Sarach Yooyen to drive forward when possible.


Photo credit: Changsuek

Chanathip is a certain starter but either Supachok or Ekanit is likely to remain on the bench in an attempt to compete more aggressively in midfield.

Having said that, Nishino has surprised everyone several times with his team selections so there may be more unexpected moves on the cards. There are plenty of options in midfield but Nishino must get the balance right against a very strong opponent.

  1. A chance to restore some pride

Much has changed since the last time Thailand played a competitive fixture in Vietnam. Four years ago, the War Elephants were imperious and saw off their opponents with contemptuous ease. But this came before the dramatic rise of many of Vietnam’s young talents and the hosts will this time go into the match as slight favourites.

Thailand were undoubtedly the top side in Southeast Asia from 2014 to 2018, but the balance of power has shifted in the past 18 months, with the Vietnamese lifting the AFF Suzuki Cup before bettering Thailand’s performance in the 2019 Asian Cup.


Photo credit: Changsuek

The two sides have contested two fiercely competitive matches this year, with just one (freakish) goal scored. Vietnam’s victory in the King’s Cup clash came courtesy of an added time goalkeeping howler but there was little between the teams. Vietnam then came away with the goalless draw they seemed to be playing for when they visited Bangkok in the first World Cup qualifier in September.

Both teams have been guilty of some reckless physical challenges, with lenient refereeing sparing players on both sides more severe punishment. Some of the play acting has also been unedifying to watch, as the bad feeling between the two sides has often come to a head.

If Thailand want to reverse the momentum that Vietnam have built up and reclaim their throne as the best side in the region, they will have to match their opponents’ aggression and ensure they keep their heads in the heat of what may well be another spiteful encounter.

Thailand start crucial double header with tough test against resurgent Malaysia

Thailand’s clash with Malaysia on Thursday is an excellent opportunity to take three points that would significantly strengthen their hopes of proceeding to the final stage of 2022 World Cup qualifying.

Seven points from three matches sees them joint top of Group G, alongside Vietnam. Victory in Malaysia would set them up nicely for a tough game in Vietnam next week.

But the Harimau Malaya have been making significant progress under Tan Cheng Hoe. In addition to a dramatic win in Indonesia, they have suffered narrow defeats at home to UAE and away to Vietnam. This is a stark contrast to their 2018 campaign, which saw humiliating losses against the UAE and Palestine.

Nevertheless, the War Elephants also look a better side than the one that lost to Malaysia on away goals in the semifinal of the AFF Cup last year.

Here are three things to look out for in the Malaysia Vs Thailand match.

  1. What changes to a winning team?

Thailand’s 2-1 victory over UAE on Matchday Three was one of the national side’s finest performances in recent years. There was relentless energy, attacking flair and mental toughness when they quickly recovered from the blow of conceding a completely undeserved equaliser.

Head coach Akira Nishino has some tough decisions to make as he welcomes back some players who missed out through injury last month. Talisman Chanathip Songkrasin did not make the UAE game but was hardly missed as the likes of Ekanit Panya and Supachok Sarachat drove at the UAE defence in the manner of the Consadole Sapporo playmaker.

It would seem harsh to leave out either of the younger players so Nishino might look to accommodate all three, as he did in the 3-0 win in Indonesia in September. This could well mean switching Sasalak Haiprakhon to left-back, with Theerathon Bunmathan suspended.


Photo credit: Changsuek

There is also a decision to be made at right-back, with Tristan Do back in the fold. Do had won his place back after being out of favour under Milovan Rajevac. However, when the Bangkok United man was nursing an injury last month, Port FC’s Nitipong Selanon gave two excellent performances, first in the friendly against Congo and then in the victory over UAE.

In the centre of defence, Manuel Bihr’s place looks secure but with Pansa Hemviboon fit again and the likes of Elias Dolah pushing for a start, Nishino must decide whether or not to persist with Tanaboon Kesarat.

Changing a winning team is not always a good idea but it seems unthinkable that a fit Chanathip will not start. Otherwise, Nishino may decide to leave things as they were and as far as availability allows.

  1. Stay positive 

The win over the UAE was a demonstration of why Thailand are at their best when their attackers are encouraged to express themselves and put the opposition on the back foot. While it will be difficult in the hostile atmosphere at the Bukit Jalil Stadium, there is no reason why Thailand should go there with a different approach.


Photo credit: Changsuek

While Japan-based Chanathip, Teerasil Dangda and Theerathon were missing, the Thais performed dismally at the same venue in 2018 and were fortunate to escape with a 0-0 draw. With Ekanit’s emergence and Supachok’s development, along with the return of two of the aforementioned players, Nishino has a much wider range of attacking options at his disposal and should play to the squad’s strengths.

Malaysia will fancy their chances in front of their home fans but, man-for-man, Thailand still have the edge in terms of quality. If Nishino again lets the attackers off the leash, the War Elephants will have a better chance of consolidating their position at the top of Group G.

  1. Thais must stop Safawi 

Malaysia’s squad contains several talented players in their early twenties, which bodes well for the future. The impressive performances of Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in their first participation in the AFC Champions League this year gave many of them the opportunity to play at a higher level and they did not disappoint.

The player Thailand should watch out for most is Safawi Rasid, who was the highest scoring Malaysian in the 2019 Malaysia Super League season. The 22-year-old has a range of skills that make him an extremely dangerous opponent and the Thais will have to ensure they don’t allow him to cut in from the right to unleash a thunderbolt shot with his deadly left foot.


Photo credit: Football Association of Malaysia

In last week’s friendly against Tajikistan, Safawi’s wonder goal settled the game, just the latest in a growing list of spectacular strikes. He scored one of the best goals of this year’s AFC Champions League when his signature move came off. He cut in from the right and, despite intense pressure from a Shandong Luneng defender, he smashed in a curling shot from 25 yards that landed in the top corner.

Thailand will not be complacent given Malaysia’s recent form and they should also be well aware of the dangers posed by the likes of Syafiq Ahmad and Mohamadou Sumareh. But they should be most concerned about Safawi’s ability to create something from nothing and prepare accordingly.

2019 Thai League review: Teams 13 to 16

My review of the 2019 Thai League (T1) season continues with a look at the teams who finished from 13th to 16th.

  1. Nakhon Ratchasima 

Predicted finish: 13th

Best player: Leandro Assumpcao

A dull 2018 campaign had seen the Swatcats flirt with relegation before pulling clear to finish eighth. But nothing in the preparation for the 2019 season suggested things would get better as they started with the same head coach and with Henri Doumbia and Amadou Ouattara as the only significant additions to the squad.

Doumbia and Ouattara may have the pace and skills to trouble most defences but their lack of consistency and final product ensured that, while exciting to watch at times, they were not players to take the club to a higher level.


Photo credit: Nakhon Ratchasima FC

The team scored more, memorably thumping Muang Thong United and Chonburi at home, but they also conceded more and a desperate run of form saw Milos Joksic axed with a few games left.

Despite just two wins in the final nine matches, Nakhon Ratchasima survived on the last day but it was a disappointing season for the club with the second-best support in the league. More investment is clearly required if they are to fulfil their potential.

  1. Suphanburi 

Predicted finish: 5th

Best player: Cleiton Silva

Without a doubt, the most disappointing performance given the resources at the club’s disposal.

Despite an indifferent few years, things were looking much brighter at the start of 2019, with T1 winning head coach Totchtawan Sripan at the helm. The War Elephant seemed to have the makings of a deadly strike pairing as Jonatan Reis joined Cleiton Silva in attack.

Arguably the best Thai keeper in the league, Sintaweechai Hathairattanakool, played behind Thailand centre-back Suphan Thongsong and the midfield featured the defensive solidity of Adul Lahso and Kim Sung-hwan, with Tanasith Sripala offering some flair.


Photo credit: Suphanburi FC

While the squad lacked the depth to challenge at the very top, they looked well placed to get back into the Top Six.

Things started slowly but surely as they took six points from the first four matches, conceding just once. But the next game saw a 4-0 thrashing at Trat and things were never the same. Suphan’s season ended after an injury on international duty, Sintaweechai and the misfiring Reis left mid-season and the departing Totchtawan added another failed appointment to his CV.

A seven-match unbeaten run in July and August threatened to lift them out of trouble but they had left themselves who too much to do. The final day defeat at home to Chiang Rai United should have confirmed their relegation but PTT Rayong’s demise has given them a reprieve. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess.

  1. Chainat 

Predicted position: 15th

Best player: Chatmongkol Thongkiri

Chainat were up against it from the start with one of the smallest budgets in the league. They also very quickly lost their foreign attacking signings – Gorka Unda and Leandro Resida – to long-term injuries.

Despite this misfortune, the Hornbills remained competitive and pulled off some big wins at their home stadium, beating Buriram United, Bangkok United and Muang Thong United. They saw the continuing development of some young talents in midfielder Chatmongkol Thongkiri and full-back Jaturapat Satham.


Photo credit: Chainat FC

However, Dennis Amato’s side could not achieve the required level of consistency to stay clear of the drop zone and a home defeat in the penultimate match against Nakhon Ratchasima confirmed relegation.

With some of their top young players expected to move on, Chainat will have their work cut out as they attempt to return to the top tier at the first attempt.

  1. Chiang Mai FC

Predicted position: 16th

Best player: Eliandro

One of the most shameful episodes in Thai League history is the only way to describe Chiang Mai’s participation in T1 this year. The promotion of the team from Thailand’s ‘second city’ had generated much excitement but it was clear that much was wrong in the build-up to the season.

The squad comprised of 10 loan players from northern neighbours Chiang Rai United and, given the close ties between these two clubs, this was a clear indication that Chiang Mai were not standing on their own two feet.

The precocious talent of Ekanit Panya – on loan from Chiang Rai – lit up the first half the season although the Lanna Tigers struggled. After he returned to his parent club, things got tougher. Chiang Mai moved in with Chiang Rai – a mere 200km away – as renovations were supposedly taking place in their home stadium.


Photo credit: Chiang Mai FC

Despite the change, the men on the pitch fought hard but, as they neared the end with chances of survival intact, the club resorted to self-sabotage. It was apparent that another season in T1 did not appeal as several regular starters were left out.

Relegation was confirmed with one game left but there was still time for one more act of high farce. Up against Buriram on the final day, they played the spoilers role with a late equalising goal handing the title to Chiang Rai.

The celebrations were outrageous, not just for the goal, but long after the match. This had been a season of disappointment and embarrassment but players and staff cavorted around as if they had won a trophy, raising suspicions of Chiang Rai’s role in their motivation.

You have to feel for the fans betrayed by those at the head of the club.


2019 Thai League review: Teams 9 to 12

My review of the 2019 Thai League (T1) season continues with a look at the teams who finished from 9th to 12th.

9. Prachuap FC

Predicted finish: 12th

Best Player: Artyom Filiposyan

A revelation in 2018, Prachuap kicked off 2019 with no sign of second-season syndrome, racking up four wins in the first six matches. However, the loss of prolific strike pair Lonsana Doumbouya and Jonatan Reis eventually kicked in.

Caion made a reasonable, if inferior replacement, but Matheus Alves failed to match the high standards of his predecessors. A 5-0 thrashing at Port FC on Matchday Seven marked a sharp downturn and the Killer Wasps won just two of the next 17 matches to slide into the relegation battle.


Photo credit: Prachuap FC

Ironically, it was the return fixture against Port that kickstarted the revival that would see them survive. A 1-1 home draw on Matchday 22 was the start of a seven-game unbeaten run in which they conceded just three goals.

That spell coincided with a historic League Cup success as what had threatened to be a disappointing campaign ended in triumph.

  1. Trat FC

Predicted finish: 14th

Best player: Lonsana Doumbouya

A team cobbled together just before the season started looked ill-equipped to begin their first ever T1 campaign. Favouring revolution over evolution, Trat were a completely different side to the one that had been promoted from T2.

The arrivals of various loan players and veterans looked uninspiring but they made a promising start with a battling performance in a 3-2 defeat at Ratchaburi on Matchday One.


Photo credit: Trat FC Fanclub

The signing of Lonsana Doumbouya – who ended the season as T1’s top scorer – was inspired while veterans like Bireme Diouf, Baihakki Khaizan and Pichit Jaibun made valuable contributions. Nigerian winger Adefolarin Durosinmi saw his career revived with some scintillating performances, particularly in the destruction of eventual champions Chiang Rai Utd.

It will be interesting to see how they manage playing resources in the close season, with loan players set to return to parent clubs and the men in their mid-30s not getting any younger.

  1. PTT Rayong 

Predicted finish: 8th

Best player: Apiwat Pengprakone

These T1 newcomers looked well prepared for life in T1, with many of the squad having experience at some of the top clubs. Anawin Jujeen and Korawit Namwiset had won titles with Buriram, Victor Cardozo had won two cups at Chiang Rai United and Costa Rican international striker Ariel Rodriguez had starred for Bangkok Glass.

Former Thailand internationals Suttinin Phuk-hom and Sarawit Masuk were two other eye-catching signings alongside the wildcard Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, once a very promising young talent at Arsenal.

It took a long time for PTT to get going and it looked like they would be in a relegation battle rather than shooting for the top half of the table. Like most English strikers who have played in Thailand, things didn’t work out for Emmanuel-Thomas and his contract was soon terminated.


Photo credit: PTT Rayong

The turning point came in the middle of the year as a run of six victories in eight matches saw them shoot up the table. However, they soon lapsed into mediocrity again, winning just one of their final 11 games to finish just three points above the relegation zone.

It was a disappointing campaign with a squad of such experience and quality. Sarawut was in and out of the side, Ariel’s fitness was an issue and Cardozo failed to find the goalscoring form of previous seasons. Journeyman striker Apiwat Pengprakone was an unexpected inspiration and arguably the club’s most consistent performer for the first half of the year at least.

Things got worse as the season ended, with the news that the club would be withdrawn from T1 due to a lack of investment from the sponsors. Another sad ending for a Thai club

  1. Sukhothai FC

Predicted finish: 11th

Best player: John Baggio

Another season, another relegation battle. Sukhothai were certainly a tough team to beat in 2019 but they found it very difficult to beat their opponents. Under Ljubomir Ristovski, the Firebats began the season with an eight-match unbeaten run, but seven of those matches ended in draws. After Ristovski was sacked, they had to win on the final day of the season to seal another year in T1.

Sukhothai ended the season having lost just eight games – more than only Chiang Rai United, Buriram United, Port FC and Bangkok United. On the flip side, they won just six times – fewer than any other club. The sixteen draws they had were down to the defensive head coaches they employed, survival specialist Pairok Borwonwatanadilok having replaced Ristovski..


Photo credit: Sukhothai FC

Just 37 goals conceded pointed to evidence of the solid shape they often had but the absence of a reliable striker was the difference between mid-table security and a battle to survive. John Baggio was again their most important player after Montenegrin striker Petar Orlandic proved unable to fill Nelson Bonilla’s boots.

If they can hang on to Baggio, they can hope to have a better campaign in 2020 but they need to recruit wisely to avoid another season of struggle.

Port hope to end a long wait as Ratchaburi stand in their way

Port FC aim to put an end to a 10-year wait when they take on Ratchaburi in Saturday’s Thai FA Cup final.

A decade has passed since the Klong Toey side won the trophy and nine years since their last major domestic honour – the 2010 League Cup.

Much has changed in the Thai football landscape since then but the Port Lions are finally among the top sides again.

Ratchaburi may lack the rich history of Port but they should not be underestimated, having given Port two very tough battles in league action this year.

Here are three things to look out for in the 2019 FA Cup final.

  1. Port’s wide boys

A key element of Port’s attacking play this year has been the two wingers, supported by the energy of two dynamic full-backs. Bodin Phala has been outstanding for much of the year, while Pakorn Prempak, though less consistent, can be a menace on his day. At right-back, the relentless Nitipong Selanon has really excelled, while left-back Kevin Deeromram’s injury-plagued year can end on a high.


Photo credit: Port FC

There is creativity, pace and energy on the flanks, while Bodin in particular offers a goal threat with a thunderbolt strike. Much of Port’s tempo will be dictated in midfield and Go Seul-ki will play a key role in the centre, while Sergio Suarez will, as usual, be a focal point of the attacking play.

However, the performances of the Port wide men may go a long way to determining who ends the year with a trophy.

  1. Dragons’ French connection

Yannick Boli, Lossemy Karaboue and Steeven Langil all share a similar footballing education, having come through the French system that has produced so much top talent in the past 40 years.

Striker Boli and attacking midfielders Karaboue and Langil have been among Ratchaburi’s top performers this year, with Boli announcing himself on the Thai stage by scoring a hat-trick on his debut.


Photo credit: Ratchaburi FC

Boli – nephew of former France international Basile – was once part of the Paris St-Germain youth system, while Karaboue’s youth career was spent at Lyon. Langil’s first steps in French football came at less celebrated Nimes, but he has arguably been the most impressive of the three this year.

It has been an up-and-down season for the club but Boli’s finishing, Langil’s flair and Karaboue’s energy have all been features of the best moments for the Dragons.

Up against a Port squad that has the edge in terms of quality and depth, Ratchaburi’s French connection will have to be at their best if the Dragons are the lift their first ever FA Cup.

  1. A night for cool heads

Both of the fixtures between Port FC and Ratchaburi this year were keenly fought as only a Dragan Boskovic penalty separated the sides at the PAT Stadium before a 1-1 draw at the Mitr Phol in the return fixture. The first match was a bad-tempered affair marred by VAR controversies, while a poor refereeing performance was also a feature of the second game.


Photo credit: Port FC

Both teams will be desperate for a landmark trophy win, so this will be a match in which cool heads are vital. A loss of discipline could be the difference between success and failure with the stakes so high.

It has to be hoped that matters on the pitch will be decided by the team that plays the best football and deserves the victory and subsequent celebrations. However, emotions will be running high on Saturday and the team that stays calm under pressure may well have the edge.

2019 Thai League review: Teams 5 to 8

My review of the 2019 Thai League (T1) season continues with a look at the teams who finished from 5th to 8th.

  1. Muang Thong United

Predicted position: 3rd

Best player: Heberty Fernandes

It was more of a salvage job than a T1 campaign for Muang Thong United as a disastrous start saw two head coaches try and fail. Relegation specialist Pairoj Borwonwatanadilok seemed immediately out of his depth, quitting after five games before Yoong Jong-hwan also found the task too tough for his liking despite having one of the league’s most talented squads.

The four-time Thai champions made their worst ever start to a season, losing eight of the first 11 matches to leave them sitting in the relgation zone.


Photo credit: Muang Thong United

In came former Buriram United and Chiang Rai United head coach Alexandre Gama to clean up the mess. The serial trophy winner may have started inauspiciously with a 2-0 defeat at Chonburi but he soon turned form around in spectacular style, winning seven of the next eight. With the clubs at the top taking it in turns to drop points, it even looked like Gama could pull off an incredible title victory until a defeat at Port FC ended their surge.

In the final 20 games of a 30-game season, Muang Thong were top of the form table, having won the same number of points as champions Chiang Rai. Had Gama been in charge from the start, we may have seen a very different title race.

  1. Samut Prakan City

   Predicted position: 10th

Best player: Peeradol Chamratsamee

Samut Prakan City were the surprise package of the first half of the season. Having taken over the licence of Pattaya United and moved the club closer to Bangkok, it was effectively a new club but they did have the core of a decent Pattaya squad to call upon.

Still, no one expected them to be among the title contenders as the season reached the halfway stage, as the likes of Peeradol Chamratsamee, Jaroensak Wongkorn, Teeraphol Yoryoei and Noppol Phonkam forged an excellent team unit. Striker Ibson Melo impressed in attack, while Aris Zarifovic was proving an astute signing at centre-back.


Photo credit: Samut Prakan City

But the loss of midfield general Peeradol precipitated a collapse in form just after the halfway point of the season. Five defeats in six games – three by three-goal margins – ensured that Samut Prakan would not stay in contention for the title beyond Matchday 20.

Form over the final 10 matches would actually have them in the bottom three – above only PTT Rayong and Chainat, highlighting just how significant the dropoff in form was. Nevertheless, a sixth-place finish was more than anyone could have hoped for at the start of the year and it will be tough to emulate that in 2020.

  1. Chonburi

   Predicted finish: 6th

Best player: Sintaweechai Hathairattanakool

It was another season of inconsistent form from the Sharks, never winning more than two on the trot, while their longest losing streak was three.

The club known for its academy and the opportunities it gives young players began to resemble more of a retirement home when there was an influx of players in their mid to late thirties. 37-year-old goalkeeper Sintaweechai Hathairattanakool returned to his spiritual home before a line of veterans followed in the shape of Datsakorn Thonglao (35), Wittaya Madlam (34), Teerathep Winothai (34) and Mongkok Namnuad (34).


Photo credit: Chonburi FC

It was a curious recruitment policy in a year in which their most promising youngster – Worachit Kanitsribampen – failed to build on an impressive 2018 as he was in and out of the side. However, 20-year-old centre-back Kritsada Kaman grew in stature and was one of the more regular starters in a side that saw a lot of chopping and changing of personnel.

Chonburi at least improved on last year’s 9th place but they remain far from the heights of the years 2007-2014 when they never finished outside the Top Three.

  1. Ratchaburi

Predicted finish: 9th

Best player: Steeven Langil

The drama at Ratchaburi was somewhat familiar as a new head coach quit before the season had even started. Manuel Marquez Roca suggested he had received a better offer and was on his way, leaving the inexperienced Farncesc D’Asis Bosch in charge.

It wasn’t long before the Spaniard was packing his bags to be replaced by AC Milan legend Marco Simone, whose management career had been modest at best.


Photo credit: Ratchaburi FC

A squad possessing the attacking flair of Steeven Langil and Yannick Boli could be fun to watch but form was erratic until the midyear arrivals of Lossemy Karaboue and Yoo Jun-soo added some steel to the team.

The popular Simone’s departure was met with disappointment but form improved. The Dragons lost just three of their final 15 T1 matches and ended the season as the league’s fifth top scorers, while just four teams conceded more goals.

If they can hold on to their top foreign players and tighten up at the back, Ratchaburi could be a more formidable force in 2020.

2019 Thai League review: Teams 1-4

The battle for the 2019 Thai League (T1) title will go down in history as one of the tightest ever.

Chiang Rai United and Buriram United completed their 30-game schedule level on points, meaning the former were crowned champions for the first time.

Five teams had remained in contention at the halfway point and three teams were separated by just two points going into the final two games.

It was just as exciting at the other end with the first relegations confirmed only in the penultimate round of matches.

Here is a look back at the performance of clubs from 1-4 compared with the predicted finish at the start of the season.

  1. Chiang Rai United 

Predicted finish: 7th

Best player: Phitiwat Sukjithammakul

I got this one hopelessly wrong. The departure of Alexandre Gama at the end of 2018 to be replaced by yesterday’s man Jose Borges seemed a backwards step. When Borges then made way for Ailton Silva before the start of the T1 season, it smacked of turmoil behind the scenes. Add to that a lack of investment in the squad and it didn’t look promising. Incoming centre-back Brinner looked a downgrade on Victor Cardozo, while midfielder Peerapong Pichitchotirat was always destined to be a squad player, having arrived from BG Pathum United.

But the Beetles demonstrated the value of continuity as the team that had won three domestic trophies in two seasons proved as strong as ever as they scrapped their way to an unlikely title. Brinner proved an inspired singing, while midfield rock Phitiwat Sukjithammakul emerged as a key player for club and country.


Photo credit: Chiang Rai Utd

The Brazilian attacking pair of Bill and William Henrique were consistent and the icing on the cake was the return of Ekanit Panya from loan. Ekanit made a significant contribution in the second leg of the season as he made the leap from promising youngster to the country’s most in-demand young talent.

Winning just 53 percent of matches would not have been the record of T1 champions in most years and Chiang Rai certainly benefited from not being affected by the kind of injury crisis that afflicted Bangkok United. However, if you end a long season on top, you deserve to be there. We are in for a fascinating close season as the club now builds towards a participation in the AFC Champions League and a defence of their title.

  1. Buriram United 

Predicted finish: 2nd

Best player: Supachok Sarachat

We waited all season for the real Buriram United to come but it just never happened. The Buriram we know win games even when playing poorly and rise to the occasion when it matters most. This team never got going and we saw only flashes of the side that has dominated Thai football in recent years.

A standout 3-1 victory at Port FC in June was the only time Buriram looked like themselves but they paid dearly for poor recruitment decisions, with the foreign contingent in attack failing to deliver.


Photo credit: Buriram United

Capitulations at Muang Thong United and Chiang Rai United were most unlike Buriram, while they found themselves stealing narrow wins at the likes of Ratchaburi and Trat FC due to some dubious refereeing.

There is now a sense that the northeastern club will come back stronger next year, with many of their young talents toughened up after a disappointing year. Attacking midfielder Supachok Sarachat finally showed the consistency and end product that his game had been lacking and he will be a key player as they attempt to wrestle back their title in 2020.

  1. Port FC 

Predicted finish: 4th

Best player: Sergio Suárez

Looking back, this seems a season of missed opportunity for Port. If it wasn’t for a bizarre mid-season slump, the T1 title may well have ended up in Klong Toey rather than Chiang Rai.

Ultimately, it was their failure to beat the teams around them that proved costly as they took just two points from six matches against their fellow Top Four sides. There were plenty of positives as Elias Dolah became a more formidable presence at the back, Nitipong Selanon forced his way into the national team and Bodin Phala recovered his form and confidence to show what he could do.


Photo credit: Port FC

Veteran midfielder Sergio Suárez remained their key player but the treatment of David Rochela – cut from the T1 squad mid-season – was shoddy, while Dragan Boskovic looked a shadow of his former self before his mid-year departure.

The arrival of head coach Choketawee Promrut sparked a revival and Port finished the season strongly but the controversial defeat at Buriram on Matchday 29 ended a title bid that always had shaky foundations.

If they can keep the bulk of this squad together and add a bit of quality, they should be able to mount another sustained challenge to take that elusive first T1 title.

  1. Bangkok United 

Predicted finish: 1st

Best player: Michael Falkesgaard

It was a season that started with great promise but ended in anti-climax as Bangkok United failed to take the opportunity presented by weakened opponents.

The Bangkok Angels looked significantly strengthened by the arrivals of Nelson Bonilla, Tristan Do, Peerapat Notchaiya, Mike Havenaar and Anon Amornlerdsak. But it didn’t take long for what would become a recurring problem to set in.

In just the second match of the season, a nasty tackle on Vander Luis put him out for almost three months and so began a series of injuries to key men that affected three of the new players.


Photo credit: Bangkok United

Bonilla, Do, Peerapat and Vander all missed approximately a third of T1 matches, while Mika Chunuonsee and Anthony Ampaipitakwong also had injury plagued years. Havenaar failed to adapt to the tropical heat and left mid-season. Add to that the eight-match suspension for Sanrawat Dechmitr and the Bangkok Angels could never really develop momentum with the talents at their disposal.

Having said that, they should have been good enough to beat Buriram at least once in two evenly matched games. Instead they took just one point out of six. Their hopes really died when they conceded a last-minute winner at resurgent Muang Thong United – a result that sucked the belief from the squad as they won just one of the next five.

Doubts remain over the future of head coach Mano Polking and, with Japanese clubs rumoured to be eyeing Bonilla, the club faces a very uncertain future.

Chiang Rai United clinch Thai League title as Chiang Mai upset Buriram

Chiang Rai United won their first ever Thai League title in the most dramatic style as a late goal from Chiang Mai’s Caique denied Buriram United a sixth championship in seven years.

Chiang Rai fulfilled their duty as they thrashed Suphanburi 5-2 to ensure Buriram needed to take three points. The striker they sent to Chiang Mai on loan then did his parent club a huge favour by netting the goal that saw the Top Two finish level on points, meaning the Beetles became champions courtesy of their superior head-to-head record.

The home defeat to Chiang Rai meant that Suphanburi finished in the bottom three as survival expert Pairoj Borwonwatanadilok steered Sukhothai to safety with victory at Nakhon Ratchasima.

Here are three things we saw on a dramatic T1 Matchday 30.

  1. Chiang Rai finish with a flourish 

When former Chiang Rai striker Cleiton Silva put Suphanburi 1-0 up in the 13th minute of Saturday’s match, it would have taken a brave person to predict that the Beetles would be crowned as Thai champions by the end of the evening.

It took until the 44th minute for Siwakorn Tiatrakul to equalise but by the time William Henrique and Ekanit Panya had completed the turnaround, Buriram had taken the lead at Chiang Mai.

Tanasith Sripala pulled one back for the home side before Nattapong Samana’s red card gave the momentum back to Chiang Rai and a strong finish saw Bill add a fourth from the penalty spot.


Photo credit: Chiang Rai United

After Phitiwat Sukjithammakul added a fifth in the 90th minute, there was a nervous wait before the club from the north were confirmed as champions.

Chiang Rai had started the season behind Bangkok United and Port FC as the side most likely to end the Buriram-Muang Thong United duopoly that has lasted 10 years but a talented squad with the same core as last season managed to battle through an unusual season to end on top of the pile with a win percentage of just 53 per cent.

The Brazilian trio of Brinner, Bill and William were important, Phitiwat’s form saw him establish himself in the national team and Siwakorn also had excellent season. Recalling Ekanit from his loan at Chiang Mai midway through the season may just have given the Beetles the additional edge required to become champions.

Under Alexandre Gama, Chiang Rai won two FA Cups and a League Cup but they failed to mount a sustained title challenge.

They can now look forward to the AFC Champions League group stages in 2020 and they will hope to keep as many of these players together after lifting four trophies in three years.

Suphanburi, meanwhile, face dropping into T2 unless the anticipated withdrawal of PTT Rayong grants them a reprieve.

  1. Buriram blow it

Buriram United title wins have become fairly routine. Despite the fact that Bozidar Bandovic’s side had been thoroughly unimpressive for most of the year, they entered the final day of the season as T1 leaders and needing to beat already relegated Chiang Mai to become Thai champions for the sixth time in seven years.

Chiang Mai’s uncomfortably close relationship with Chiang Rai suggested the home side might have an unusual incentive for a relegated tea. A return to their home stadium after months away added extra spice and a huge crowd reflected a sense of occasion.

Buriram’s plodding first-half performance was familiar but when Nacer Barazite gave them the lead early in the second half, it looked like they would win the title despite themselves.


Photo credit: Buriram United

However, Chiang Mai were determined to give the home support something to shout about and Buriram had survived some nervous moments before Caique rose to head home from a corner with just three minutes remaining. The Brazilian was so delighted to help his parent club that he ripped off his shirt and promptly received his second yellow card.

An onslaught from the visitors followed and there were several near things before the referee blew for full-time after five additional minutes.

The Buriram players slumped in despondency while Chiang Mai bafflingly celebrated like a team that had won a trophy rather than a side that was heading for T2.

Overall, it has been a year to forget for Buriram, with several of the older guard running out of steam while the recruitment of four foreign strikers failed to come close to providing adequate quality to replace Diogo Luis Santo and Osvaldo. Significant changes can be expected at the club by the time the 2020 season kicks off.

  1. Pairoj engineers another great escape

Pairoj Borwonwatanadilok started the season as head coach of Muang Thong United but soon discovered that he didn’t have a head for heights at a club used to challenging for trophies rather than battling relegation. He quit the Kirins after just five games in charge that included three defeats.

Pairoj then found himself back at Sukhothai – the club he saved from relegation in 2017 before achieving a similar feat at Suphanburi last year.

He went into Saturday’s match at Nakhon Ratchasima knowing that a victory would be enough to keep his club in T1 given that it would take the Firebats above the Swatcats on the head-to-head record.


Photo credit: Sukhothai FC

Kabfah Boonmatoon’s stunning opening strike set the visitors on their way and he added a second to put Pairoj’s side in control. But a Rudolf Basna own goal and a Chtichanok Xaysourinthone effort from close range levelled matters to put Pairoj’s reputation as a survival expert at risk.

But Basna redeemed himself by putting Sukhothai back in front before Irvin Herrera made it 4-2 to make the points and the club safe.

Suphanburi’s failure to beat Chiang Rai United ensured the Swatcats stay up for another year. Pairoj quit his job at Sukhothai following the completion of his duties and rumor has it he will join Nakhon Ratchasima for the 2020 campaign.

Buriram just three points from glory while Chiang Rai hope for a miracle

Buriram United hope to wrap up their sixth Thai League (T1) title in seven years when they visit relegated Chiang Mai on Saturday.

It has been a relatively poor season for the champions but the failure of their rivals to take their best opportunity in years means it looks like we will see the same old story.

Chiang Rai United will cling on to the hope that Chiang Mai can take at least a point from Buriram, allowing the Beetles to lift their first T1 crown with victory at Suphanburi.

At the bottom end of the table, what was expected to be a dramatic finish has been obscured by the uncertainty over PTT Rayong’s future. If PTT drop out of T1 for financial reasons, Suphanburi, Nakhon Ratchasima and Sukhothai should all survive.

Here are three things to look out for on T1 Matchday 30.

  1. Chiang Mai can go down with a bang

The close relationship between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Utd has been one of the more unedifying features of the 2019 season. Chiang Mai would have been far less competitive without their several loan signings from the Beetles, including the explosive talents of Ekanit Panya in the first half of the year.

The Lanna Tigers move to Chiang Rai when their home ground was closed for renovations made things uncomfortably closer.

By fielding a weakened XI for the past three matches, it seemed apparent that Chiang Mai did not want another season in T1, perhaps because another team with close links – BG Pathum United – had been promoted back to the top tier.


Photo credit: Chiang Mai FC

With relegation now confirmed, Chiang Mai are now in a position to show their gratitude for all those loan deals and for a temporary stay at the Singha Stadium. Beating or drawing with Buriram may look unlikely but, back at their home ground, they have a fighting chance. Bangkok United, Muang Thong United and Samut Prakan City – all in the current Top Six – could only take a point on their visits north.

Top striker Eliandro has been left on the bench for the last three fixtures but he gave a reminder of his capabilities when he came on to score twice in 15 minutes in last week’s win at PTT Rayong.

Buriram’s inconsistency is demonstrated by the fact that they have yet to win four T1 matches in succession this year. They are currently on a run of three, so to make sure of yet another title, they will have to make it to four.

  1. PTT shadow looms large over Swatcats shootout with Sukhothai 

It had been shaping up to be a dramatic winner-takes-all clash, as Nakhon Ratchasima prepared to host Sukhothai in match that could have ended with one or neither relegated.

A draw would suit both were Suphanburi to be beaten by Chiang Rai Utd, while a Nakhon Ratchasima win would condemn Sukhothai. A Suphanburi victory combined with three points for Sukhothai would send the Swatcats down.

With confirmation of PTT’s fate unlikely to be confirmed until next week, this remains the case for now but the poor timing of the news from PTT has cast a shadow over the relegation battle. The three sides still involved now know that they might already be safe regardless of what happens this weekend.


Photo credit: Nakhon Ratchasima FC

Based on what has been communicated, Nakhon Ratchasima and Sukhothai have to go into Saturday’s fixture aiming to win. Should news filter through that Chiang Rai are winning comfortably at Suphanburi, we may see a drop off in the space if the score is level in the northeast.

It is a complicated scenario, further complicated by the rumours over PTT’s future. However, this is a battle for survival, even if survival is decided retrospectively.

  1. Chiang Rai hoping for a miracle 

A pre-season that saw the departure of new head coach Jose Borges suggested that all was not well in Chiang Rai and that this might be a tough year, following consecutive Top Five finishes.

On the contrary, under Ailton Silva the Beetles have come closer to T1 glory than ever, though they have not managed to replicate the cup success of the last two years.

Consistency of team selection and relatively few issues with injuries have been key to keeping Chiang Rai in the title race. They have depended heavily on the Brazilian pair of William Henrique and Bill in attack, while benefiting from Ekanit’s return and the solidity of Phitiwat Sukjitthammakul in midfield.

There is a good overall balance to the team and the healthy blend of youth and experience that is often found in title contenders.


Photo credit: Chiang Rai United

Unfortunately, they have blown opportunities to stay in control of their destiny this year but with one match remaining, they are still in with a chance. They have to win at Suphanburi and hope for their notherrn neighbours Chiang Mai to pull off an upset against Buriram.

The War Elephant have their own agenda as they need a victory to guarantee survival, so the Beetles won’t get it all their own way. But the visitors may benefit from the rumours about PTT’s possible withdrawal from the league – something that would probably ensure that Suphanbuti stay up.

Few expect the final day to end with a big surprise but it would be quite a story if the two teams from the north combined to produce a new T1 champion.