The Title Contenders
The disappointing campaign of 2011 now appears as a distant blip on the radar after big spending Muangthong cruised to the TPL title last season. The lucrative sponsorship deal signed with a well-known cement group helped them pick up their third title in the last four years. With the same backers still on board, the champs will start the 2013 season as favorites.
Slavisa Jokanovic remains at the helm with the strongest pool of players in the division at his disposal. New signings include, Austrian internationalist, Roland Linz, Korean defender Kim Yoo Jin, while the Thai striking duo of Napat and Chainarong will feature on the fringe of the squad. Teerasil's much hyped transfer to Athletico Madrid had the Thai press purring with open mouths, but as strongly suspected the move never materialized and Mui has returned to Nonthaburi. The club were dealt a major blow in a pre-season tournament in Hong Kong when Kawin suffered a broken leg. As a consequence, the big keeper is expected to miss the first half of the season. Another thing which could distract the champions is their involvement in the AFC champions league. Muangthong will face a hectic schedule in the early weeks of the season although league fixtures either sides of AFC ones will be alleviated for the reigning champs.
Chonburi have finished as runners-up for the past two seasons. Last season the Sharks reached the semi-final of the AFC Cup which consequently left them looking a rather tired team by the end as they finished 14 points behind Muangthong.
The mid-season signing of Thiago Cunha proved a master stroke with fans of Chonburi now expecting the Brazilian to spearhead their title quest this time. He'll be joined up front by Montenegrin Ivan Bošković and the wildly unpredictable Samual Ajayi who arrived from Bangkok Glass. Chonburi's coach, Withaya Laohakul, came in for criticism from sections of the Chonburi faithful, and with him still in charge, it's hard to see Chonburi winning the league. It will be essential for Chonburi to come flying out of the blocks as Muangthong and Buriram will be preoccupied with ACL Champions League action in the opening two months. This will be the window of opportunity for the Sharks to make their move.
The all conquering squad of 2011 has been dissembled and the one about to embark for this 2013 campaign is almost unrecognizable from the treble winning side. The African core of the 2011 team has all been moved on to pastures new. The new boys, Goran Jerkovic and Osmar Barba, showed last season that they can cut it at this level but it's unknown how the other new foreign recruits will fit in. The attack minded duo of Bustos and Gonzalez both made their debuts last weekend and initial impressions were certainly positive.
Even though Buriram United won the cup double last season, I'm sure the vast majority at the Thunder Castle would have swapped both cups for retaining the TPL crown. Finishing 30 points behind Muangthong in fourth place would have seriously irked the club dignitaries and fans. The priority now will be to wrestle the TPL trophy back from Muangthong's grasp. Similarly to Muangthong, they'll have to juggle the TPL with AFC competition in the early weeks.
BEC Tero Sasana
Tero finished third last year and will be considered an outside bet to win the TPL this season. The revolving players door has been rotating again but not as rapidly as the past couple of seasons. Apichet and Sarif have arrived from Buriram United while the pacy Yai Nilwong will boost attacking options. Incoming foreign players include Japan's Sho Shimoji, Gabriel Davis of Brazil and French striker Jonathan Béhé. Cleiton Silva, Arzu, Nattaporn, Rangsan and the promising youngster, Chanathip, still remain on board from last season. The club will be hoping that their move back to the outskirts of Bangkok will increase their fan base. A cup success appears a more realistic route to silverware.
The New Kids on the Block
The Dragons of Ratchaburi have climbed from the regional league through the first division in the space of two seasons. Last season they won Division 1 with a large percentage of the experienced playing staff being loaned from Buriram United.
The close season bizarrely saw the removal of Fluke Boii as coach only for him to be reappointed again days later. Strikers Douglas Cardozo and Pornchai have been retained as has recently capped defender Prayad. Incoming players include the experienced Brazilian Wellington Oliviera while former K-League player Cho Jin Soo will be expected to deliver goals. Local boy Ekkapoom has also been brought in from Muangthong Utd.
Pre-season results have shown promise from the Dragons and the depth of talent available in the squad should see them clear of danger.
Suphanburi invested heavily and added plenty of experience to their squad as they made their way out of Division 1 last year. The club have continued to spend money during the off season improving their stadium and training facilities. Sensibly realistic expectations have been quoted with a season of consolidation being their ultimate goal. Notable additions to their experienced squad include Prat from BEC Tero, the reliable keeper Kosin from Army Utd, Mika Chunounsee and Bireme Diouf.
Suphanburi were solid but unspectacular to watch as they won promotion last year. There appears to be good spirit in the camp and they should be capable of a mid-table finish.
After two seasons outwith the top flight, Bangkok United make their return to the TPL. Last season they finished third in Division 1 with Romain Gasmi taking many of the plaudits with a series of classy displays. A lot will rest on the Frenchman's shoulders and he'll be vital to keeping the Angels in the TPL. The broody Ronnachai has been coaxed from BEC Tero and could net anything between 2-20 goals for the Angels. The reliable Tony Pinho and Mario da Silva have added to the Brazilian clan at the Thai Japanese Stadium as the club prepare for a tough battle ahead in securing their TPL status.
The Rest of the Bunch
Osotspa continue to be at the forefront of the chasing pack yet they never seem to mount a serious challenge on the top 4. In the last three seasons they've moved up the rankings one place each year with 7th, 6th and 5th placed finishes.
The impressive Namibian striking duo of Lazarus Kaimbi and Tangeni Shipahu are still on board while the Brazilian Dudu has been released. They've also included three experienced Japanese players in Hiroyuki Yamamoto, Saguru Hasimoto and Hiromichi Katano in their squad for 2013. Again it's highly likely Osotspa will finish in the top half, but there in nothing new to suggest that they'll be pressing the top 4.
Esan United / Sisaket FC
Esan United's first season in Ubon Ratchathani was a surprising success as they claimed a sixth placed finish. Despite the lofty placing, nobody really regards Esan United as a top 6 club with many neutral fans judging them an unnoteworthy replacement for the well supported Sisaket FC.
The rumblings of discontent over the transfer from Sisaket to Esan Utd still hang over the club. The latest news is that the deal to move the club lock, stock and barrel to Ubon Ratchathani was deemed to be illegal, and the club must hand back the rights to Sisaket FC. Yet again, there is still plenty of drama to unfold with both factions of the club firmly believing that they have the right to rule.
The constant guessing for the players must make them feel like they've stepped onto the film set of Clint Eastwood's Heartbreak Ridge. Nonetheless, with Gilbert Koomson and Anon added to the player roster, Esan Utd have enough depth to avoid any danger and a mid-table finish should be achievable. That is provided the off field shenanigans doesn't carry over onto the playing side of things.
Edit - Just dimiss what's been written above as Sisaket have a totally different playing squad to that of Esan Utd
Before the start of last season, it was looking bleak for a sponsorless Samut Songkhram. Thankfully for the Mae Khlong side, financial backing eventually arrived and they climbed out the relegation zone to secure a rather unexpected top half finish.
If you wind the clock forward one year, Samut Songkhran are virtually back to square one with most of their best players long since departed. Coach Somchai is used to wheeling and dealing on a tight budget and has brought in a host of players from the fringes of other teams with Ney Fabiano and Obama Florant being the most renowned captures. At this moment, any thoughts of another top half finish appear implausible. It seems they'll be scrapping at the other end of the table this year.
Bangkok Glass had a clearout during the close season as the owners of the club finally lost patience with the failure of any end product on their investments. On reflection of the 2012 season, pre-match team photos had the BG players looking more akin to models posing for a metrosexual magazine rather than football players about to commence battle on a football pitch.
With approximately 15 new additions, the side will be quite unrecognizable from the one last year. Goals will be expected from new boys Leandro dos Santos and Bill Mehmet while goalkeeper Narit and the defensive additions of Shinnosuke Honda, Piyachart, Jose Mena and Goran Subara should add some steel to the back line. I can't see them challenging for the league title but a top 6 finish should be the minimum of expectation. If results don't go well from the onset, you have to wonder how long Phil Stubbins will be given in the BG hot seat.
Chiang Rai United are now firmly established as part of the TPL scene with two successive mid-table finishes achieved. Regularly backed a large home following at their new United Stadium, this could be the year that CRU challenge for a top six finish. The Fighting Beetles have largely kept faith with the same squad as last season although they have added the powerful striker Leanardo who was one of the few shining beacons in a desperate TTM side last season. He will add to the strong Brazilian connection at the club while the reported capture of ex Manchester United trainee Kyle Nix should excite the Orange Power.
Since Army United's transformation from an military team watched a few hardy souls to a more cosmopolitan one embracing the local community, the club have enjoyed positive openings to their last two campaigns before their early season promise fizzled out. Reaching the FA Cup final was a decent achievement last year but lack of consistency in the league has slightly irritated the fans.
A lot of the Thai squad players have been made surplus to requirements as has crowd favorite Tony Pinho who's made the short distance move to Bangkok United. The side lacked a proper striker last season and they have recruited Matthew Mbuta and Bakary Diakite to help address this problem. Army Utd will be aiming for the top 6 but more likely they'll flounder nearer the bottom 6.
Last season was a massive underachievement for the Thammasart based club as they spent the vast majority of the season scrapping for their survival. It was only after collecting enough points in a late run of seven home matches that the Crimson Cops pulled away from danger.
The signing of Brazilian scoring machine Leandro dos Santos never really worked out and he has been moved on to pastures new. Ludovik Takem has been brought in from Pattaya to replace him while the return of Whoo Hyun will improve the defence. Police should be able to avoid trouble this year and could possibly finish in the top half.
The communications company settled back into their Chaeng Wattana surroundings and enjoyed a comfortable season last time out. With boardroom disputes a thing of the past, it has allowed the team to blossom on the field.
With a similar squad and set up this time, complacency could be TOT's biggest enemy. The reliable Lee Jun Ki and Takahiro Kawamura are still at TOT as is the Serb, Rodoljub Paunovic, who weighed in with a few goals after his mid-season arrival last year. Regrettably midfield playmaker Diego Walsh has had to call it a day, yet the team should be good enough to avoid relegation with a lower mid-table finish seeming more realistic.
The transformation of Buriram FC into Songkhla United took 12 months longer than planned. The guise of Wuachon United has been dropped while Songkhla FC's existence has been terminated to allow this metamorphosis to happen.
On the field, Wuachon relied on a host of loanees to guarantee their survival last year. This time with only a maximum of 6 loanees allowed, it's going to be harder for them to stay up. Home form will be vital for Songkhla and I'll be curious to see how many times they'll get 30,000+ crowds this season.
Chainat's started their maiden TPL season in encouraging form but ended up only securing their TPL status in the penultimate weekend of the season. The Hornbills shipped in an alarming 72 goals which was by far the highest amount of any side. Fortunately they scored 59 at the other end which was a total only surpassed by MTU, Chonburi and Buriram United.
New coach Surachai came in at the tail end of last season and during this transfer window he raided his former club Bangkok Glass bringing several recruits up to Chainat. The most notable one was the loan signing of central defender Valery Hiek which came as a surprise to Bangkok Glass supporters. If the Hornbills can shut up shop at the back, then they should avoid another relegation dogfight.
The Dolphins continue to baffle as they dropped from a 4th placed finish in 2011 to a 4th bottom finish in 2012. The goals from Ludovik Takem were vital in the second leg of last season in keeping Pattaya in the TPL. Pattaya seem to play at their best when nothing is expected of them, so if this is the case expect them to finish in the top half this time.
Last season's top scorer Ludo has left as has their reliable keeper Narit. The new arrivals aren't much to write about and another season of unpredictability looms.