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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.