Buriram need new boys to make their mark in tough ACL opener

Buriram United begin their 2019 AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign under something of a cloud, having failed to win either of their first two Thai League fixtures.

The Thai champions are in Japan to face Urawa Reds, who lifted the trophy just 16 months ago, so they have their work cut out to get off to a positive start.

However, Buriram upset the odds by taking a point away to Guangzhou Evergrande on Matchday One last year and will be hoping for a similar outcome in Saitama.

Here are three things to look out for in Buriram United’s ACL clash with Urawa.

  1. Strikers have to step it up

While Diogo Luis Santo was scoring and putting on a man-of-match performance for JDT and Edgar Silva was scoring for Daegu against Jeonbuk Hyundai, Buriram’s new strikers drew a blank at the weekend.

Diogo and Edgar made for a formidable strike pairing in 2018 but they have since moved on, while Buriram wait for their replacements to prove themselves. Mali’s former West Ham striker Modibo Maiga hit the net in the Thailand Champions Cup last month but has yet to get off the mark in the league, while Pedro Junior’s late arrival means he has had little time to adjust.

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Photo credit: Buriram United

Most clubs in East Asia lean heavily on their foreign strikers for goals and now would be a good time for this pair to show what they are made of. Former Vissel Kobe and Kashima Antlers forward Pedro may be more likely to start given his familiarity with Japan and the fact that he has looked the sharper of the two.

Whoever has the opportunity is unlikely to get too many opportunities so they will have to make the most of any that come their way.

  1. Hosogai injury opens door for Xuan Truong

Injury has ruled Japanese midfielder Hajime Hosogai out of Buriram’s ACL squad, scuppering a sentimental return to the club where he spent the early years of his career. Hosogai won the ACL with Urawa Reds back in 2007, before his career took him to Germany for several years. Buriram no doubt had this kind of occasion in mind when they signed the 32-year-old from Kashiwa Reysol.

However, as one door closed, another one opened and the first two league games of the season have seen starts for Vietnam midfielder Luong Xuan Truong. With his country riding the crest of a wave in international football, the 23-year-old would love to make an impact on this stage and demonstrate that he is a more than adequate replacement for Hosogai.

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Photo credit: Buriram United

While he has recently been outshone by international team-mates like Nguyen Cong Phuong and Nguyen Quang Hai, Xuan Truong has long been considered one of the top young talents in Vietnam and he has made a solid start to life in Thailand.

With Jakkaphan Kaewprom also having fitness issues, Xuan Truong is line for another start and, with Asia watching, he will be determined to prove he belongs in this tournament.

  1. Urawa form leaves door open

At this stage of the tournament in particular, Japanese sides often see the ACL games as a time to rest players and tinker with the lineup. Buriram benefited last year when Cerezo Osaka sent a second string to Thailand and the hosts duly won 2-0.

Urawa have taken just one point from their opening two league games and were defeated at home to Chanathip Songkrasin’s Consadole Sapporo at the weekend. It would be no surprise to see Urawa’s starting lineup looking somewhat short of full strength as they try and ensure their top team is ready for Saturday’s trip to Matsumoto Yamaga.

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Photo credit: Buriram United

Whatever team Urawa plays, it will still be a huge challenge for Buriram to come away with a point or more. The visitors have yet to see their new strikers click and are not in the best shape to get a result,

However, if Bozidar Bandovic can instill the spirit that that saw them go unbeaten in the away fixtures in the group stage last year, Buriram may just do enough to take a point.

Bangkok United host Muang Thong in clash neither side can afford to lose

It is only Matchday Two of the 2019 Thai League (T1) season but a huge clash looms large as Bangkok United host Muang Thong United.

Both clubs made unimpressive starts last weekend and will be desperate to earn their first victory of the campaign.

Bangkok United were lucky to escape from Sukhothai with a 1-1 draw, while Muang Thong’s much vaunted strike force drew a blank in a 1-0 defeat at home to Prachuap FC.

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

  1. A match neither can afford to lose

Bangkok United have made no secret of their title ambitions and Saturday’s game at home to Muang Thong United is exactly the kind of fixture they must win to make their fans believe. They have a poor record of winning crunch games like this so a victory is essential.

A draw would be disappointing and a defeat would feel pretty disastrous in the context, with all pre-season optimism disappearing. On the other hand, taking three points from a close rival will instil belief that the team is finally coming together.

Muang Thong, meanwhile, are determined not to finish among the also-rans as they did last year and the returns of Teerasil Dangda and Mario Gjurovski energised the fans. However, head coach Pairoj Borwornwtanadilok was already having his tactical acumen questioned after he set up his team in a baffling formation last week, featuring four strikers in various forward positions.

The 1-0 loss came against a decent Prachuap side but it punctured some of the optimism that had been building.

The Kirins boss would probably take a draw but Bangkok Angels head coach Mano Polking must know that anything other than a win will see the pressure continue to build.

  1. Sharks face old foe in new guise 

Chonburi can no longer look forward to a derby clash with neighbouring Pattaya United now that Samut Prakan City have stolen their rivals and transported them to the outskirts of Bangkok.

It is still a local rivalry of sorts, with Samut Prakan province lying just a few kilometres from the Chonburi border, so it will be interesting to see the dynamic that develops over time.

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Photo credit: Chonburi FC

On the pitch, Samut Prakan may be sitting two points above their rivals after beating Chiang Mai at home last week, but Chonburi have taken great heart from a battling performance at Buriram. The Sharks were 2-1 and a man down at the home of the champions when Kroekrit Thaweekarn fired in an equaliser to earn a great point.

Patrick Cruz may be ready to make a start up front alongside the talented, if temperamental, Lukian and Worachit Kanitsribampen will again be a threat in attack.

Samut Prakan could stay top of T1 with a win but Chonburi have to be favourites to beat the club formerly known as Pattaya United.

  1. Weakened Port face Boli challenge

It is never a good time for Port FC to lose their top defender David Rochela to injury but it looks particularly poorly timed when one of T1’s top new attacking talents is coming to the PAT Stadium.

Yannick Boli took T1 by storm last Friday as he hit hat-trick that gave Ratchaburi a 3-2 victory over Trat to kick off their campaign. Boli’s movement and variety of finishing was the highlight of an otherwise patchy performance from the Dragons, whose backline was bullied by Lonsana Doumbouya.

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Photo credit: Ratchaburi FC

Steeven Langil also impressed with his skill and direct running, suggesting that Ratchaburi will be fun to watch in attack this year but may not be the strongest at the back.

Not only are Port without Rochela, but new midfielder Go Seul-ki also misses out after last week’s straight red card in Chiang Rai. Port dug in for a goalless draw in Chiang Rai  and they will have to keep things tight at the back again if they are to keep out Boli.

There should be a party atmosphere after the season launch festivities and the team will hope to keep that going with a home win.

Bangkok United’s Bonilla must be ruthless on return to Sukhothai

The Thai League (T1) season kicks off on February 22ndafter a break of almost four months.

Every club will be determined to ensure they do not get off to a poor start as 16 teams battle for prizes, prestige and survival.

Here are five things to look out for on T1 Matchday One.

  1. Bonilla must make triumphant return

El Salvador striker Nelson Bonilla made a huge impact in his first T1 season at Sukhothai last year. While his goals helped keep his team up, he will hope to be fighting for the title with Bangkok United rather than to avoid relegation in 2019.

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Photo credit: Bangkok United

The first match of the campaign sees him make a speedy return to his former club with no room for error. Bangkok United’s underwhelming pre-season has cast doubt on their title aspirations after the capture of the likes Bonilla, Tristan Do, Peerapat Notchaiya and Anon Amornlerdsak raised expectations.

It is vital that Mano Polking’s side quickly remove any doubts over their credentials by making a strong start in Sukhothai. Anything other than a win will see the pressure build on Polking just one game in.

  1. Sharks bid to upset champions

It doesn’t get tougher than a trip to Buriram United, something Chonburi are facing on Matchday One for the second time in three years. In 2017, the Sharks stunned the home crowd by taking a 2-0 half-time lead.

The hosts recovered and two late strikes sealed a 2-2 draw before Buriram went on to have another successful year and clinch another title. Chonburi look stronger on paper than last season and arguably two years ago and this is a big early test of their progress.

An expected defeat will not be particularly damaging in the circumstances but taking one or three points would be a huge boost to morale for a club that has seen regression for the last four years.

With a squad that has a good balance of youth and experience as well as some strong looking new recruits, Chonburi can certainly hope for better than last year. And where better to start than by taking something from the home of the champions who have lost the attacking strengths of Diogo Luis Santo and Osvaldo.

  1. Muang Thong take on nemesis 

The mention of Prachuap FC might be enough to make any Muang Thong United fan break into cold sweats. The newly-promoted club inflicted humiliation on the Kirins with a 6-1 victory early in the 2018 season.

The thrashing was enough to cost head coach Totchtawan Sripan his job, and Prachuap then completed an unlikely double by winning 2-1 at the SCG Stadium in July.

Muang Thong have added some quality to their squad and can afford to be cautiously optimistic about the season ahead. However, they must first face their fears when familiar foes come to town.

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Photo credit: Prachuap FC

Prachuap have lost the two strikers – Jonatan Reis and Lonsana Doumbouya – that did so well for them in 2018 but they have signed Matheus Alves, who knows how to beat Muang Thong. The Brazilian striker absolutely destroyed the Kirins as his hat-trick contributed to a 5-1 League Cup victory for former side Chonburi.

Prachuap will hope that Matheus can bring that form to the SCG Stadium on Sunday, while Muang Thong will hope that they can start the year by burying a hoodoo.

  1. Early test for Port Lions

Port FC took a big step forward in 2018 as they went from mid-table to top 3. They will hope to at least maintain their position in 2019 but face a tough opening to the campaign with a trip to Chiang Rai United.

The Beetles may have seen their costs cut significantly since the spending spree of 2017 but they have kept the core of their team together and they can still produce the goods when it matters. Their 0-0 draw in the AFC Champions League playoff at Sanfrecce Hiroshima demonstrated their fighting spirit and they will again make for tough opponents this year.

Port will be delighted to have seen their rivals endure 120 minutes of struggle in the cold of the Japanese winter before losing out in a penalty shootout on Tuesday. It certainly wasn’t ideal preparation for Sunday’s hosts and Port will be determined to take advantage.

  1. Old, new, borrowed…

Samut Prakan City have taken their place in T1 without the conventional need to earn their spot in the top tier. They simply acquired the licence of Pattaya United, moved the club, renamed it and took most of their players with them.

Chiang Mai FC, meanwhile, battled their way to the top with a promotion from T2 last year. However, the Lanna Tigers have not given the impression of being prepared for life in T1, with a scramble for enough loan deals to keep them up, principally from their brothers in Boon Rawd Brewery backing – Chiang Rai United and BG Pathum United.

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Photo credit: Samut Prakan City

Samut Prakan certainly look to have the stronger of the two squads even if they have lost a couple of Pattaya’s better players. It will be intriguing to see how Chiang Mai’s patchwork of loanees adapt to life in T1 but on-loan (from Chiang Rai) playmaker Ekanit Panya and striker David Bala (signed from BG…) ensure that they have the brains and brawn to do some damage.

This might not be the headline match of the opening weekend but it certainly carries a lot of interest as two of the season’s more unpredictable sides do battle.

Thai League 2019: The top four

The 2019 Thai League season kicks off on February 22ndwith a clash between Ratchaburi and Trat FC – two clubs that are unlikely to be challenging for prizes this year.

But the following two days will see the true contenders open their campaigns as they battle for T1 supremacy. We may well see the same four teams make up the top four as in 2018, but the order may be somewhat different.

  1. Bangkok United

The club’s motto for the season is ‘The time is now’ and it does seem that it might be now or never for Mano Polking’s side.

The Bangkok Angels have been building towards this moment since 2014 and, with better balance and depth than ever, this is the time to deliver.

The teams who have denied them over the past three years look slightly weaker than they have done, while Bangkok United’s recruitment has been decisive and impressive.

Pre-season form has been a cause for concern, with the 5-1 thumping by Consadole Sapporo a warning and the AFC Champions League exit to Hanoi FC an indication that things have not fully clicked yet. But it is obviously better to get these defeats out of the system before the T1 season gets underway and lessons will have to be learned.

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Photo credit: Bangkok United

There are plenty of options in attack and striker Nelson Bonilla will surely net at least 25 to 30 goals if he stays fit. Anon Amornlerdsak should also prove a valuable addition as the 21-year-old attacking midfielder sets about trying to fulfil the potential he has shown since his Buriram United debut back in 2014.

Tristan Do’s energy down the right flank will be a vital outlet and he adds a dimension that has perhaps been missing from the squad.

There remains a psychological barrier as there has frequently been frustration in clashes with Buriram. If they can overcome this, the title they have been chasing may finally be theirs.

Player to watch: Nelson Bonilla

  1. Buriram United

Thailand’s champions are aiming for a sixth title in seven years and few would bet against them. They have a strong head coach in Bozidar Bandovic, a solid defensive unit marshalled by Andres Tunez, creative wing-backs and youthful talents like Supachai Jaided and Supachok Sarachat in attack.

Buriram showed few signs of weakness as they romped to the title in 2018 but, of course, they had Diogo Luis Santo in top form.

Diogo’s departure for JDT was a bombshell for fans and the subsequent loss of Osvaldo has created another gap to fill. Buriram’s squad still looks strong but Diogo’s boots will be very difficult to fill, the Brazilian having made such a huge impact since his arrival in 2015.

Buriram fans will not need reminding of the 2016 season when Diogo was missing through injury for most of the year. A fourth-place finish, humiliation in the AFC Champions League and the absence of silverware was the end result.

Buriram like to keep a lean squad and it was perhaps a little too lean that year. They have made good use of the ASEAN quota, with Philippines international Javier Patino ready to play more than the bit-part role he took in the second half of last year. Azkals left-back Stephan Palla could slot into a three-man central defence and Vietnam midfielder Luong Xuan Truong could develop into a key player.

Former Japan international midfielder Hajime Hosogai brings years of Bundesliga experience and Jakkaphan Kaewprom will keep pulling the strings in the centre of the park.

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Photo credit: Buriram United

It will be interesting to see if Supachai is given the opportunity to play up front or if he will continue to occupy a deeper role. Veterans Modibo Maiga and Pedro Junior haven’t signed to play second fiddle to a 20-year-old Thai striker but it would be a shame to see Supachai sidelined when he is in such an exciting stage of his development.

While the core of a successful side remains, this looks like it may be something of a transitional year, leaving them more vulnerable than they have been since 2016. The battle at the top should be closer and Buriram might have to miss out this time around.

Player to watch: Supachai Jaided

  1. Muang Thong United

The club’s motto for the season is ‘Football’s coming home’ – bold, somewhat illogical and sorely lacking creativity, but the sentiment is clear.

Muang Thong are looking for a revival of sorts, having finished in fourth place in 2018, a whopping 28 points behind champions Buriram.

There is no doubt about the attacking strength of the squad. Teerasil Dangda returns after his year in Japan, while Heberty Fernandes and Aung Thu’s talents are well known. Adisak Kraisorn is fit again and the precocious Korrawit Tasa may also have a role to play.

And then there is the return of prodigal son Mario Gjurovski. The Macedonian playmaker is now 33 and played very little in 2018 as he endured a nightmare spell at Bangkok Glass. However, if back to full fitness, he will be capable of game-changing moments of genius.

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Photo credit: Muang Thong United

In midfield, it is a big season for Sarach Yooyen, who has failed to get back to the outstanding form of 2016 since suffering a serious injury early in 2017. Still just 26, he can make a huge contribution if he can rediscover his confidence and energy in the engine room of the team. With the deep lying Charyl Chappuis, Lee Ho and Wattana Playnum also vying for midfield places, Muang Thong will need Sarach to push forward more.

It is all change in defence but the addition of Vietnam goalkeeper Dang Van Lam could be crucial. He can provide the commanding presence that was missed without Kawin Thamsatchanan last year.

Muang Thong still look short of a team that can win the title but they should give a better account of themselves than in 2018.

Player to watch: Sarach Yooyen

  1. Port FC 

Port moved smoothly into the top three last year as their investment paid off. Surprisingly, they don’t appear to have built from a position of strength and this may be a season of consolidation rather than progress.

The core of the team is still in place and this continuity will certainly help in the early stages of the season, while other clubs are struggling to find their best XI. However, the only significant additions to the squad have been Go Seul-ki in centre midfield and the playmaking skills of Sumanya Purisai.

Go Seul-ki certainly has a bit of quality, as he proved in three years at Buriram, and looks an upgrade on the departed Kim Sung-hwan. Sumanya had an outstanding season at Bangkok United last year but it is unclear how he will fit into this side.

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Photo credit: Port FC

Nurul will again be a potential match winner but must temper his tendency to hit the deck under the slightest contact if he is to progress beyond his current abilities.

The biggest problem Port have is the lack of depth up front. The goal scoring burden remains firmly on the shoulders of 33-year-old Dragan Boskovic. If he is injured, strong back-up options just aren’t there.

Port’s best XI will still be good enough to beat most of their T1 opponents but they probably need more depth and tactical flexibility to achieve the consistency to win the title.

Player to watch: Nurul Sriyankem

Thai League 2019: Teams 5 to 8

The 2019 Thai League (T1) season kicks off on February 22nd as 16 clubs prepare for battle in what is sure to be another season of drama.

The reduction of the league from 18 to 16 teams will certainly add pressure on clubs at the wrong end of the table but here are the teams that should be in the top half but not quite good enough to mount a title challenge.

  1. Suphanburi

The War Elephant look ready to emerge from three years of mediocrity to once again challenge for a place near the top of the table.

Finishes of 4th, 6th, and 3rdplace from 2013 to 2015 marked Suphanburi out as a team on the rise, but they have since fallen away.

However, last year offered some promise as, despite flirting with relegation at times, they had the second strongest defence in the league. Finishing in 10th place was more to do with a limited attack and an inability to turn draws into wins. Suphanburi drew more games (13) than any other team in T1.

With a solid defensive foundation in place, featuring Anderson dos Santos, Thailand international Suphan Thongsong and goalkeeper Sintaweechai Hathairattanakool, Suphanburi now need to ensure they have the attacking weapons to climb the table.

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Photo credit: Suphanburi FC

With Totchtawan Sripan joining as head coach, they have a strong tactician in place and he will have to get the best from his strikers. Cleiton Silva’s goals lifted them out relegation trouble last year and he has now joined on a permanent deal, along with Jonatan Reis, who was prolific for Prachuap in 2018.

Mark Hartmann is a strong alternative option up front and Totchtawan may be able to give Chananan Pombuppha a new lease of life.

Midfielder Kim Sung-hwan is a good signing from Port FC and Adul Lahso could again play a key role if he has fully recovered from the injury that kept him out for much of last year.

There is not enough quality to sustain a challenge for the top 3 but Suphanburi could surprise a few people and a place in the top five is not out of the question.

Player to watch: Jonatan Reis

  1. Chonburi

Like Suphanburi, Chonburi have fallen on relatively hard times, but there are signs of promise. Since a third runner-up finish in four years in 2014, the finishing position has been dropping, reaching a low of 9thin 2018.

But with the many young talents at the club one year older, the future looks brighter, and there have been some strong looking additions to the squad. Lukian proved a reliable goal scorer with Pattaya United last year and another Brazilian striker, Patrick Cruz, comes with a decent profile.

Myanmar internationals Zaw Min Tun and Sithu Aung could make important contributions and Niran Hansson and Ekkachai Rittipan look like two decent acquisitions from within T1.

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Photo credit: Chonburi FC

All eyes will again be on the attacking talents of Worachit Kanitsribampen who played a key role last season and the 21-year-old will look to push on and establish himself in the national side with the 2022 World Cup qualifiers on the horizon.

The squad looks to have more depth and balance than in the last couple of years and they could push themselves back into the top six.

Player to watch: Worachit Kanitsribampen

  1. Chiang Rai United

The sudden departure of head coach Jose Borges just months after his appointment was a surprise coming less than two weeks before the T1 kickoff.

The Beetles have been through an exercise in cost-cutting but they have retained a solid core of players. The departure of goal scoring centre-back Victor Cardozo is a blow but Brinner looks a reasonable replacement. In Bill, they have a dependable striker, while Lee Yong-rae is a key presence in the midfield holding role.

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Photo credit: Chiang Rai United

There is creativity from William Henrique, Siwakorn Tiatrakul and Chaiyawat Buran, but the squad is somewhat lacking in depth.

Right-back Piyaphon Phanichakul misses out with injury for several months, and while the Chiang Rai squad looks strong enough to maintain their place in the top half of the table, they might not match the performance of the last two years.

Player to watch: Siwakorn Tiatrakul

  1. PTT Rayong

PTT Rayong’s one and only season in the top tier in 2014 saw them arrive with a nice new stadium but without the squad to keep them up. It has been a long wait to return but they certainly look much stronger than they did back then.

Victor Cardozo will bring goals and leadership from centre-back and Anawin Jujeen, Victor Igbonefo, Suttinun Phuk-kom and Korawit Namviset offer strong defensive experience.

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Photo credit: PTT Rayong

Jung Hoon could be an important presence in midfield, while Ariel Rodriguez will hope to rediscover his best form in attack. Sarawut Masuk can provide creativity from the right and former Arsenal youth Jay Emmanual-Thomas will aim to relaunch his career and become more successful than most English strikers have been in Thailand.

PTT look the best equipped of the promoted clubs to make an impact and a finish in the top half certainly doesn’t look beyond them.

Player to watch: Victor Cardozo

Thai League 2019: Teams 9 to 12

The 2019 Thai League (T1) season kicks off on February 22nd with a clash between Ratchaburi and Trat FC.

Three of 16 teams will drop into T2 in 2020 so competition for places in the safety of mid-table will be fierce.

We may see some familiar names among those who are not good enough for the top half of the table but possess enough quality to stay in the top tier.

9. Ratchaburi

Ratchaburi have been hit hard by instability in their coaching set-up. Following an impressive four years in which they finished no lower than seventh, the Dragons slipped to 12th in 2018, narrowly avoiding relegation.

This season of discontent came after Christian Ziege quit as head coach just weeks after being appointed. Rene Desayere took over but also lasted a matter of weeks before Lassaad Chabbi managed to see out the season.

Incredibly, something similar has already happened again, as Manuel Marquez Roca quit shortly after being appointed, claiming to have received an offer he couldn’t refuse from elsewhere.

Ratchaburi fans will now hope that the inexperienced Spaniard Francesc Bosch can help the club get back on the rails and again make the Mitr Phol Stadium a place to fear.

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Photo credit: Ratchaburi FC

Kang Soo-il was a key figure last year and if the Korean striker stays fit, he should provide plenty of goals. Ivorian striker Yannick Boli looks a decent acquisition and Swedish-Filipino midfielder Amin Nazari could be a shrewd signing. Former Auxerre and Guingamp winger Steeven Langil has been a journeyman for a number of years but has an impressive CV.

Yotsak Chaowana impressed at Air Force United last year and could be an important addition. Unfortunately, Azkals midfielder Manuel Ott’s start at the club will be delayed for several months by injury.

The squad might not possess the quality of a couple of years back, but there is continuity in the core of the team and if the new men click, they should stay out of trouble.

Player to watch: Yannick Boli

  1. Samut Prakan City

In another depressing episode in Thai football, Pattaya lost its football club last year as their licence was taken over. This effectively enabled a brand-new club to simply take their place in the top tier.

Samut Prakan have held on to the bulk of the Pattaya United players, which should give them a reasonable degree of continuity but there is uncertainty over who exactly will provide their support.

The squad looks decent and they will hope that dynamic midfielder Peeradol Chamratsamee can rediscover the form of two years ago, having missed most of 2018 through injury. Attacking midfielder Picha Autra needs to be more consistent but he can be a real asset on his day.

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Photo credit: Samut Prakan City

A key arrival could be 22-year-old midfielder Nopphon Ponkam, whose form for Police Tero earned him a call-up to the national side last year and on-loan right-back Jakkit Wachpirom should have something to prove after his two years in Japan. Slovenian centre-back Aris Zarifovic is an interesting addition, while Brazilian strikers Carlao and Ibson Melo will have to step up a level if they are to keep the club out of trouble.

The upheaval could have a negative impact but the quality of the squad should be enough to keep them in T1 with something to spare.

Player to watch: Nopphon Ponkam

  1. Sukhothai

The loss of star striker Nelson Bonilla will obviously have an impact but Sukhothai look to have found a potential star in former Red Star Belgrade man Petar Orlandic. At 28 years old, the Montenegrin should still have some good years ahead of him.

Crucially, the club have held onto talisman John Baggio, whose hard running in attack torments defences across the country. Philippines attacking midfielder Iain Ramsay’s arrival should add creativity on the left.

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Photo credit: Sukhothai FC

Another important addition to the squad could be centre-back Joel Sami, who arrives from Ratchaburi. The former Congo international gives leadership and organisation to a leaky defence, while Indonesia international Yanto Basna might provide important back-up. Head coach Ljubomir Ristovski’s ability to organize the defence will be crucial, having impressed when he stopped the rot at freefalling Navy FC last year.

The Firebats were extremely erratic in 2018, alternating scintillating attacking performances with shambolic defensive collapses. They will need to strike a better balance this year if they are to avoid another relegation battle.

Player to watch: Petar Orlandic

  1. Prachuap

Last year’s surprise package are likely to have a difficult second season, with the club no longer plucky underdogs.

They have retained most of the players that took them to a sixth-place finish in their first T1 season last year but they have lost the two men who scored most of their goals in Lonsana Doumboya and Jonathan Reis.

Matheus Alves will be expected to provide the goals but the Brazilian will need to be more consistent, having impressed only in flashes at Chonburi last year. Supot Jodjam – so prolific in T2 – finally gets another chance to prove himself at the top level and, at 28 years old, he will surely do his best to prove he belongs.

Former Uzbek international Artyom Filiposyan could form a formidable centre-back pairing with Adnan Orahovac as the Killer Wasps look to build from the defence.

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Photo credit: Prachuap FC

Chitpanya Tisud’s season was cruelly cut short by injury last year but the attacking midfielder could be a real star if he is back to full fitness.

It is hard to see Prachuap hitting the heights of last year but their home form will be key to ensuring they are still in T1 in 2020.

Player to watch:Chitpanya Tisud

Thai League 2019: The bottom four

The 2019 Thai League (T2) season kicks off on February 22ndwhen Ratchaburi host newly-promoted Trat FC.

With the league having been reduced to 16 teams from 18, we will not see quite the same scramble to survive as last year when five teams were relegated.

However, with three teams going down, there will still be a lot of clubs at risk of slipping into T2.

Here are the teams that may take up the bottom four positions.

  1. Nakhon Ratchasima

The additions of Bernard Doumbia and Amadou Ouatarra will provide some much-needed pace and movement in attack but the Swatcats have not really strengthened elsewhere.

Head coach Milos Joksic is a great survivor in the Thai game and has proven time and again that he knows how to set his teams up to get results. However, the uninspiring brand of football may not be good enough to avoid a battle to beat the drop.

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Photo credit: Nakhon Ratchasima FC

Despite a relatively comfortable looking 7th-place finish in 2018, the Swatcats scored fewer goals than anyone but bottom side Air Force United. Doumbia and Ouatarra may add goals alongside veteran striker Leandro Assumpcao, while continuity elsewhere might help them make a strong start.

However, it is hard to see Nakhon Ratchasima hitting the heights of seventh place again.

Player to watch: Amadou Ouatarra

  1. Trat FC

New boys Trat have made some acquisitions that seem very much geared towards a battle for survival. Defensive midfielder Pichit Jaibun seems to be something of a specialist among relegation-threatened sides but he has failed to help Chainat and Air Force stay up in recent years. In the same position, Kriangkrai Pimrat is another unimaginative addition who is past his best.

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Photo credit: Trat FC

Hopes will be pinned on strikers Lonsana Doumbouya – who impressed with Prachuap last year – and veteran Bireme Diouf. Adefolarin Durosinmi provides pace in attack and may be a valuable squad member.

Former Chonburi centre-back Kim Gyeong-min is a solid signing, as is the loan deal for Muang Thong United’s Nukoolkit Krutyai. But Singapore’s 35-year-old defender Baihakki Khaizan is another of many players on the wrong side of 30. Trat will be hoping that experience wins the day and that many clubs will not relish the trip to the seaside town in the east.

They should certainly win their share of points at home but every away trip is a distance to travel.

Player to watch: Lonsana Doumbouya

  1. Chainat

Chainat survived by the skin of their teeth in 2018 and thanks to some very dubious refereeing calls in their final game of the season. Their recruitment has been underwhelming. The talented striking trio of Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Bireme Diouf and Bernard Doumbia have moved on, while the gifted but erratic playmaker Gorka Unda and Brazilian journeyman striker Ricardo Santos arrive.

Dutch winger Leandro Resida could be a key player if he can quickly adapt to his new environment as Chainat will need him to hit the ground running. Philippines midfielder Adam Reed and former Buriram striker Dennis Buscheming have also joined but neither name creates great excitement.

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Photo credit: Chainat FC

Laos’ attacking midfielder Soukaphone Vongchiemkham may be able to establish himself in the side to provide the creativity. As Buriram found out in their cup tie against Sisaket last year, Soukaphone also has a great shot on him.

Ultimately, Chainat’s squad looks a bit thin on quality and they may not be able to count on a referee to save them this year.

Player to watch: Soukaphone Vongchiemkham

  1. Chiang Mai FC

Chiang Mai’s long-awaited arrival in Thailand’s top tier threatens to be something of an anti-climax after a close season that has involved bringing in cast-offs (many on loan) from sister clubs Chiang Rai United and BG Pathum United.

Their fellow Boon Rawd brewery-backed clubs haven’t exactly given them the cream of the crop as BG aim to return to T1 at the first attempt, while Chiang Rai seek to consolidate their place among the top five teams in the country.

Seemingly unable to recruit enough of their own players, Chiang Mai have depended on loans, e.g. goalkeeper Narit Taweekul from BG and midfielder Gionat Verzura from Chiang Rai. They have also secured permanent deals from their friends, with striker David Bala arriving from BG and Mustafa Azadzoy making his loan deal from Chiang Rai permanent.

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Photo credit: Chiang Mai FC

There has been a late boost, with the loan return of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Ekanit Panya from, yes, Chiang Rai. His precocious talent adds extra quality but it might not be enough.

Fans from around the country will relish their long-awaited away day in Thailand’s second city but it may be the only one they have in a while.

Player to watch: Ekanit Panya

Mano hopes for China challenge but Hanoi pose big threat to Bangkok United

BANGKOK: Bangkok United head coach Mano Polking is targeting a trip to China as his side get set to host Hanoi FC in the Preliminary round 2 of the 2019 AFC Champions League (ACL) on Tuesday.

The prize for a victory is a play-off against Shandong Luneng and Polking hopes to ensure his team have the opportunity, two years after losing to JDT in a penalty shootout at this stage.

Not only would progress in the ACL enable the players to test themselves against the Chinese Super League side, but it would also give them a perfect platform for a strong domestic campaign.

“We know how it was two years ago and that’s why we want to do better,” said Polking. “It’s important for the psychology of the players to get a lot of confidence. With a win, we can get a new experience of going to China against a big club and all these things play a role in making the team more experienced and tougher.

“As we all know, we have brought in some good players this season. We want to be very competitive in the league and there would be nothing better than to start with a good win to start the season in a good way.”

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Photo credit: Bangkok United

Hanoi FC have seven players from the Vietnam national side that won the AFF Suzuki Cup in December and then progressed to the last eight of the Asian Cup last month. Although Vietnam’s participation in both tournaments lasted longer than Thailand’s, Polking played down suggestions that potential fatigue may give the Thai side the upper hand.

“We don’t want to use this as a big advantage or as an excuse,” he said. “We actually have similar situations. We were also missing six (national team) players, including Michael (Falkesgaard) and they were missing six or seven.

“We saw them play in the Leo pre-season Cup without their national team players. They did a good job and made it to the final. The good thing for us is that while we were missing our players, they were also missing players.

“From a fitness point of view, in the Asian Cup, they did not go even a week longer than Thailand. Three or four days doesn’t make a big difference fitness wise.

“From the psychological point of view, we know how Vietnam is doing and what they have achieved in these two tournaments gives them a lot of confidence. They may be more tired, but they are also more confident and this creates a balance.

“It will be a tough game because they are a good team and their national team players come back after doing well in two very big tournaments.”

However, Hanoi FC head coach Chu Dinh Nghiem did suggest his team may not be at the top of their game after the exertions of the national side in the last three months.

“We just had the AFF Suzuki Cup and the Asian Cup, followed by the big holiday for the Lunar New Year, so my national team players may not be at 100 per cent yet,” Dinh Nhiem said. “But we will try our best to win this game.”

Buriram boss Bandovic made to wait as new boys work on fitness

Buriram United head coach Bozidar Bandovic admits it is too early for fans to see the best of the new signings in the Champions Cup against Chiang Rai United on Saturday.

The curtain raiser to the 2019 season sees 2018 Thai champions Buriram face FA Cup winners Chiang Rai, with both sides arguably looking weaker than last year.

Buriram have lost striker and talisman Diogo Luis Santo Santo to JDT, while Chiang Rai’s goal scoring centre-back Victor Cardozo has moved to PTT Rayong.

The champions have brought in former West Ham striker Modibo Maïga and ex-Japan international midfielder Hajime Hosogai but Buriram fans will not see the former against Chiang Rai, while Maïga may only make a place on the bench.

“Maïga has been with us for two-and-a-half weeks,” said Bandovic. “He is at a satisfactory level but not how we want him yet because you cannot fix a player in two-and-a-half weeks.

“He needs to work more individually but his condition is improving and he’s adapting very fast.”

While Maiga is nearing full fitness, Hosogai is still some weeks away from fighting for a starting position.

“Hosogai needs time,” said Bandovic. “He’s now in very low level conditioning because of the problems that he has had, so we need to wait for him.”

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While Diogo may be gone after an excellent four years at the club, Bandovic pointed to how Buriram have been able to adapt and flourish despite some challenges in recent seasons.

“I have been at the club for almost three years,” he said. “I think that during all this time, my philosophy has been that one team cannot depend on one player. This (losing Diogo) would just be one excuse for us and I think that excuses are for losers.

“If we go back, for example, to 2017, we played without Diogo for two months and in that time we were the team that scored the most goals and conceded the fewest.

“Of course, he helped us, he is a big player with lots of quality and we respect all the help he gave to the team.”

Having lost to Chiang Rai on penalties in this fixture last year, as well as in the 2018 FA Cup final, Buriram will be determined to get the better of the Beetles this time around.

Falkesgaard ready for Bangkok United title bid after Asian Cup inspiration

Bangkok United goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard hopes his Asian Cup experience can inspire him in the 2019 Thai League season as his side shoot for the title.

The 27-year-old was the Philippines Number One in the absence of Cardiff City keeper Neil Etheridge in the UAE and was one the Azkals top performers.

Although his country lost all three games in the group stage, they were up against continental heavyweights in South Korea and China as well as emerging Kyrgyzstan.

“Of course, I was proud to be at the Asian Cup with the Philippines as it’s a big tournament,” said Falkesgaard. “I think everyone who was involved can use it positively in their careers.

“These games were a big experience for a lot of players and me. I’m going to use that to try and have a good start to the year here with Bangkok United.”

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With Etheridge unavailable for the Asian Cup as his club battle relegation from the English Premier League, it’s fair to say that Falkesgaard took his big opportunity. However, he would not go so far as to suggest that he was now in pole position for the jersey.

“That’s not my decision, of course, but I think I have done what I could do,” said Falkesgaard. “We played against difficult teams and the way that we played against these teams in the Asian Cup was very defensively and I had a lot to do.

“There were tough games and I hope for the upcoming matches with the Philippines that I can maybe be the coach’s first choice but it will be his decision.”

As the Bangkok Angels prepare for a title bid, they have strengthened the squad with the likes of Thailand international wing-back Tristan Do, former Japan international striker Mike Havenaar and El Salvador striker Nelson Bonilla.

Falkesgaard believes that they have to make a stronger start and to avoid dropping cheap points if they are to overcome champions Buriram United, who have finished top of T1 in five of the last six years.

“I think that last season we did quite well,” he said. “We started off quite slowly. Many new players came and we had to build the team and it took six or seven games before things started to click.

“With the new arrivals, I think that we have an even stronger team than last season, so we have to play the same way but we need to be more ruthless, like Buriram have been the last couple of years. They haven’t always won with a lot of goals but they have won the games.

“You can see from their performances last season that they scrambled a lot of points together. Something we have to look at is to be hard to play against, especially against the teams that we are supposed to beat as taking three points against them is going to be crucial.”