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.
- 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.
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
- 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.
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
- 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.
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
- 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.
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