Who’ll sink, who’ll swim in Thai league this season
The 2018 Toyota Thai League 1 kicked off on Friday night with perennial title contenders showing less enthusiasm than is customary at the start of the tournament every year.
Defending champions Buriram United, who edged Ratchaburi Mitr Phol 2-1 in the curtain-raiser on Friday, were reluctant to reinforce their ranks in their pursuit of the fifth top-flight title in a major way.
Their arch rivals and three-time Thai League 1 champions SCG Muang Thong United saw three of their top stars slip away to J-League sides, but they only signed a couple of players.
The Kirins’ first-choice goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan has also joined Belgium second division side Oud-Heverlee Leuven (OHL).
Uncharacteristically, it was Port who were quite active in the pre-season transfer market and True Bangkok United also signalled their intention for domestic domination.
The 18-team tournament will run until October when the bottom-five sides will be relegated to Thai League 2 for the 2019 season.
Still, Buriram are the hot favourites to defend their league title this season.
Club chairman Newin Chidchob has announced that he won’t be splashing huge cash on signing big names this year as he is keen to promote players from the team’s own academy.
The Thunder Castle released Jakson ‘Jaja’ Coelho at the end of the 2017 season and their top scorer has landed at Muang Thong.
The champions have brought in three new foreign players — Edgar Bruno da Silva (Brazil), Hoang Vu Samson (Vietnam) and Yoo Jun-Soo (South Korea) — and retained Brazilian striker Diogo Luis Santo and Venezuelan defender Andres Tunez. However, South Korean midfielder Ko Seul-Ki has returned home to join Incheon United.
Buriram still have Serbia’s Bozidar Bandovic as their coach and he has also been handed the task of helping the Thunder Castle earn 10 points in the home-andaway matches of the AFC Champions League group stage.
The northeastern giants are the only Thai club left in the Asian tournament following elimination of Muang Thong and Chiang Rai United in the play-off stage.
The Kirins have kept faith in coach Totchtawan Sripan whose men remain one of the top bets for this year title despite letting their top striker and skipper Teerasil Dangd (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) and left-back Theerathon Bunmathan (Vissel Kobe) follow gifted playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin (Consadale Sapporo) to J-League.
Muang Thong are likely to be without forward Adisak Kraisorn for the whole season due to injury.
Apart from Jakson, Muang Thong also signed Thailand U23 team captain and striker Chenrop Samphaodi.
The Kirins failed to make it to the group stage in the AFC Champions League, suffering a 3-0 rout at the hand of J-League side Kashiwa Reysol in the third play-off round.
Bangkok United, third last season, are once again hoping to mount a serious challenge for the coveted league title.
Last season ended in heartbreak for Bangkok United when they lost 4-2 to Chiang Rai United in the FA Cup final.
Bangkok United have swooped two Brazilians, Everton Goncalves and Vander Luiz, from Chiang Rai United, and acquired Robson dos Santos on loan from Sao Paulo. They have also signed Filipino goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard. The capital side have retained Mano Polking as their coach.
Chiang Rai United are keen to make amends for their disappointing fourthplace finish last season and can lodge a serious claim for this year’s league title.
All wasn’t bad for the Beetles in 2017 as they at last succeeded in getting off the mark with the FA Cup, the first silverware to adorn their previously empty trophy cabinet.
While Brazilian coach Alexander Gama has retained his job, Vander Luiz Silva, Rafael Coelho, Felipe Azevedo and Everton Goncalves have been given their marching orders. Chiang Rai United have brought in Victor Cardozo, Cleiton Silva and Gilberto Macena and Burmese player Kyaw Ko Ko on loan from Yangon United.
Chiang Rai failed to make it to the AFC Champions League group stage, losing 1-0 to Chinese giants Shanghai SIPG in the third play-off round.
Ratchaburi Mitr Phol aim “to reach the next level” and the Dragons have hired Christian Ziege, the former Germany international, as their new coach.
The most number of changes was made to Port, whose coach Jadet Meelarp now has the services of big names like Dragan Boskovic, the league’s top scorer last season with Bangkok United, Nurul Sriyankem, Kim Sung-Hwan, Indonesian Terens Puhiri, Kevin Deeromram and Worawut Namvech at his disposal.
Bangkok Glass, Chonburi, Police Tero, Suphanburi and Ubon UMT United set aside hefty amounts to strengthen their squads, but aren’t likely to fare any better than crowding the mid-table.
There is a good number of clubs at the other side of the spectrum who would be more than happy if they could avoid the drop in October this year.
The Football Association of Thailand has decided to trim the number of teams in the top flight to 16 next year, meaning that five teams will be pushed down to Thai League 2 at the end of this season.
Three promoted sides — Chainat Hornbills, PT Prachuab and Air Force Central — are the natural contenders for relegation, but there are other clubs who would make this race especially exciting.
Nakhon Ratchasima, Sukhothai, Navy and Pattaya United are among those who aren’t quite sure if they would sink or swim when the curtain falls in October.