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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.