Chiang Rai United open their first AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign with a tough fixture at Melbourne Victory on Tuesday.
The Beetles stunned Thai football by taking the T1 title in 2019, and now they have the chance to take a whole continent by surprise with a strong showing in their tournament debut.
The club from northern Thailand came close to making the group stages last year, but lost a penalty shootout against Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the playoff round, following a goalless draw.
They will hope that, having earned their place by becoming Thai champions, they can emulate the achievements of recent representatives from their home country. Buriram United and Muang Thong United have both reached the last 16 in recent years, and Chiang Rai will aim to match that by emerging from a group that also features Beijing Guoan and FC Seoul.
Here are three things to look for in ACL Matchday One clash between Chiang Rai United and Melbourne Victory.
- Bill’s big chance
When Bill arrived in Thailand two years ago, he looked out of shape and his early performances for Ratchaburi seemed to confirm this impression. A 33-year-old journeyman appeared to be another foreign import seeking one final pay cheque.
But Bill gradually began to prove that he was much more than a mercenary. Form picked up, though not quickly enough for Ratchaburi, who let him leave for Chiang Rai mid-season. Bill then really started turning on the style and ended the season with two medals as his new side lifted both the League Cup and FA Cup.
Bill’s hat-trick in the 3-2 victory over Buriram in the FA Cup final confirmed his status as one of the best strikers in the country, and he continued his fine form during Chiang Rai’s title winning season.
Now 35, Bill may never have another opportunity to play at this level and he should go all out to prove that he belongs here. His physicality will certainly trouble the Melbourne defence and Chiang Rai will hope that any chances that come their way fall to the Brazilian.
2. Phitiwat to lead by example
Phitiwat Sukjitthammakul was Thai League Player of the Year in 2019 – the award for best Thai player… The midfielder was a solid presence in the heart of midfield and earned a call-up to the national side, quickly establishing himself as a regular starter for the War Elephants.
Phitiwat will be a vital presence as Chiang Rai attempt to win the battle in the middle of the park. The 25-year-old has emerged as something of a symbol of a team whose strength is in the sum of its parts rather than individual brilliance.
The skipper is an unspectacular player, but he performs a crucial role with a strong work ethic and dedication to breaking up opponents’ play and keeping things simple when he is in possession.
The Chiang Rai players have grown accustomed to overcoming the odds in the big matches and their captain’s winning mentality is very much a representation of what this team has become over the past three trophy-laden years.
3. Forget about Victory form
Melbourne Victory’s 1-0 ACL playoff win over Kashima Antlers proved that this side could raise their game when it mattered, leaving behind indifferent domestic form.
Victory sit ninth in the A-League after 17 matches – a woeful season for the four-time champions. However, the squad have players with enough quality to give Chiang Rai a very difficult time.
Unfortunately, former Bayer Leverkusen forward Robbie Kruse misses out through injury, but veteran Swedish striker Ola Toivonen is likely to lead the line, while Marco Rojas should be a tricky opponent for the Chiang Rai defence.
Toivonen started in a World Cup quarter-final less than two years ago, while Rojas was plying his trade with SC Heerenveen in the Eredivisie at the same time.
The pedigree of many of the Melbourne Victory players is clear and they will be aiming to demonstrate that they can shine on the continental stage even when domestic form is stuttering.