Monday, February 16, 2015

5 Things I Noticed on the Opening Weekend

The standard of refereeing has not improved.
If anything it has gotten worse. The season opener between Saraburi and Chonburi will best be remembered for a shocking performance from the man in the middle. Missing one of the most blatant penalty decisions I've ever seen was bad enough, but it was his failure to master the basics that was more distressing. There were so many bad calls on corner and offside decisions.
On Saturday in the dying minutes of Army v Navy, the ref pointed to the spot when an Army defender had quite clearly made a last ditch tackle. On realizing his error, he then booked the Navy player for diving in a bid to save face. TOT players and coaching staff were also furious with the dithering match official after he allowed a disputed late goal for Ratchaburi.
It just makes you wonder if any training has been given to the referees during the close season.

There seems to be an extra sprinkling of pre-match fannying about.
The huddle was discussed indepth in the Chonburi clubwebsite 'tap room' last year, and with the exception of a couple of responses, the verdict was thoroughly negative. These days there is an obligatory minimum of two huddles per team. It seems now that they are trying to 'outhuddle' each other by seeing who can maintain their huddle for the longest time. Factor in the increasing trend for players to stand in front of their supporters while they sing the club anthem to them, it's almost ten minutes between the time players come out the tunnel to the kick off.

Where have all the glory hunters gone?
When Thailand lifted the AFF Cup back in December, they were cheered on by a new breed of younger fan. The YouTube generation though have shunned their domestic league in preference of other activities.
There was generally no significant increase in crowds for the season openers. As expected, it was packed to the rafters at Nakhon Ratchasima, but elsewhere attendances weren't overly impressive in the TPL. Arguably Chainat could be pleased with 8,000+ and 20,000 at Buriram is still a lot of people.  
In Division 1, the ten games played attracted less than 20,000 spectators. The highest crowd of the weekend was at newly promoted Sukhothai with 3,223 in attendance.

Saraburi and Navy are going to struggle.
I watched both of their games this weekend, and even though they received some praise, they both appear to be slightly out of their depth. Saraburi were gritty against a Chonburi side that appeared to have their eye on their AFC trip to Japan this Tuesday. Even though they overran a lightweight Chonburi midfield for periods, they rarely troubled the Chonburi keeper. Douglas and Bireme Diouf have plenty of TPL experience and they need to hit some consistency if Saraburi are to survive. That looked like Saraburi's best effort on Friday evening and it's difficult to imagine that they have anything more in the tank.
Navy on the other hand were incredibly negative at Army. When defending corners they had 11 men back in the box and even when they were chasing an equalizer, they still left three men standing on the halfway line while they had a corner kick. If they are going to use the height of Georgie Welcome then use it in the danger zone. It's pointless hitting long balls up the touchline for him to flick on. They won't be easy to beat, as Army discovered, yet at the same time they'll be lucky to average a goal a game on this display.

Is it worth screening live games at 6pm?
On Saturday and Sunday just as many of us were settling down for the football, the live feed was cut and the Junta news was broadcast on every channel. Like me, I'm sure you all enjoy digesting the daily news bulletins from the powers that be. However, this interruption is not a new practice for the TV sport companies. It's been ongoing for almost one year now. So, it would make sense to start the live games at 6.30 or 7pm rather than missing the first 20 minutes of action every week.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Division 1 Preview

Division 1 this season has expanded to 20 clubs from 18. With three going up and six going down, this season should prove to be vastly exciting in the second tier. Here is a brief look at the runners and riders:

Recently Relegated
The duo that jump out at you immediately are Police United and PTT Rayong. These big spenders were demoted last year from the TPL despite possessing some impressive financial muscle. Police have kept many of the (let’s be honest) highly paid flops that got them into this mess. They’ve also managed to persuade Sho Shimoji to jump ship from BEC Tero which suggests mouth-watering wages are still playing a big factor in their promotion push. The problem for me last season with Police was their hiring and firing of head coaches. Attaphol Buspakom is the man currently in charge and whether he has the ability to motivate his superstars back in the top flight remains to be seen.
In my opinion, PTT Rayong seem a better bet of making an instant return. Their form in the second half of last season wasn’t too bad and it was their shabby start which landed them in this predicament. Amadou Ouattara and Yves Desmarets are good enough for the TPL, but they’ve decided to stay put, as are the recently recruited Korean pair of Lee Sang Ho and Kim Geun Chul from Singh Tarua. PTT also managed to pinch Aron da Silva from under the noses of the aforementioned Bangkok club, with higher wages luring the Brazilian to Map Kha.
Air Force and Songkla United have also kept some of their better players from last season. I can see both of them being in the promotion hunt, but making a swift return could be a big ask. Kouassi Yao Herman is guaranteed to get Air Force goals while Songkhla have taken a punt on the goalscoring front with Sanchez and Suarez. Unfortunately for the Fighting Bulls, it’s Sergio and Rufo as opposed to Alexis and Luis.
All that remains with the club that we traditional acknowledge as Samut Songkram is their title. Their home ground has still not been brought up to standard and a season at a bland university stadium in the western metropolis of Bangkok looms. On the playing front, Mark Babo Landry returns after successful loan spells at Chiang Mai and Ang Thong last year. His goals will be vital in preventing this club from making unwanted back-to-back demotions.

Promoted Quartet
Last season two of the promoted sides fell by the wayside and slipped instantly back into the regional leagues. With six relegation berths this year, I can see another 50% casualty rate coming from this set of new boys.
After flirtation with the Division 2 playoffs in recent years, the northern duo of Sukhothai and Phichit finally navigated their way into the first division. Prachuap’s route was via the southern section after a few years of anonymity in the Central region while Thai Honda did it through good old fashioned financial clout.
Thai Honda return to the second tier after three seasons out. Once upon a time, they were a TPL side but Honda were regularly only watched by one man and his dog. Last season attendances mushroomed with their Lat Krabang stadium full to the brim during the play-offs. They’ve got aging, experienced, foreign players with one of them being Ivan Petrovic. He’ll be hoping to complete a hat-trick of promotions from the first division. He previously achieved this with Singh Tarua and Nakhon Ratchasima. Honda have also kept hold of the Regional League’s 2014 player of the year, Rodoljub Paunovic.
The coach of Petrovic’s promoted Singh Tarua side in 2013 was Dusit Chalermsan. He has subsequently made the switch to Prachuap. Taking the Killer Bees to promotion would be a tall order and staying up would constitute success. He’s got experienced Munze Ulrich between the sticks and Erivaldo showed last season at Krabi that he can score goals at this level.
A few years ago, Phichit played second fiddle to TPL side TTM while they were residing in the town. Now they are on a level playing field. The King Crocodiles don’t have a big budget, but they are ambitious and will be hopeful of a mid-table finish.
Sukhothai won the Northern region ahead of Phichit last season and they’ve been working hard to add the necessary reinforcements. Recent purchase Felipe Ferreira knows his way around this division and experienced promotion with Navy last season. 

The Main Pack
Eleven sides try their luck again in 2015. The team that will be most unrecognizable from last season is Pattaya United. This season they will be the much loved younger sibling of Muang Thong United rather than the snot-faced cousin of Chonburi. As a consequence, the Blue Dolphins have acquired several fringe MTU players including Milan Bubalo and Ri Khwang Chon.
Bangkok FC have missed out on promotion on the final day for the last two seasons and it must be psychologically difficult to bounce back for a third attempt. From the outside, Chiang Mai have the credentials to be a TPL side, and despite releasing some of their top players they are still well equipped to challenge for the top six.
The remaining eight sides Ayutthaya, Trat, Ang Thong, BBCU, Krabi, Phuket, TTM, and Nakhon Pathom could realistically be involved at either end of the league table. Ayutthaya have bought a proven goalscorer at this level in Valci Junior but the biggest battle will be keeping the well-travelled striker fit and interested. The comings and goings at Trat don’t suggest anything better than last season and the same could be applied to Ang Thong.
Yusuke Kato showed with Korat in 2013 that he was too good for this level. He has joined BBCU along with Chonburi castoffs Andre Araujo and Yuki Bamba. The Pink Panthers are possibly a player or two away from a promotion push though. The southern pair of Krabi and Phuket could also be on the periphery of the promotion race, but most likely they’ll be somewhere in the middle. The Ronins have boosted their attacking threat with Brazilians Andrezinho and Ronir de Souza with Berlin Ndeme-Nlome also joining from Ayutthaya. Krabi have gone for experience with Ludovik Takem brought in as chief goal poacher while Kone Seydou will strengthen their back 4.
TTM’s partnership with the Customs Department hasn't halted their decline and they continue flounder in front of very few spectators. Meanwhile, Nakhon Pathom Utd have kept it in the family with Jason Withe taking over the coaching duties from his father, Peter. They’ll be hoping that new boy Kone Mohamed can stay injury free to bang them some goals while the same could be said of Matius Recio who’s joined TTM.

There are a few clubs playing their home fixtures at different venues this year:
  • Police United will play at the Bunyajinda Stadium in northern Bangkok. However, the stadium isn't ready yet to host football so they'll use the Leo Stadium for their first couple of home matches. 
  • Ayutthaya have moved in as tenants at Thammasart University. The floodlights at their Provincial Stadium in Ayutthaya still haven't been repaired after they were damaged by a storm last year. 
  • TTM were supposed to use the Bunyajinda too but they are apparently staying put at Lat Krabang 54.
  • The other Lat Krabang side Thai Honda, have moved to BEC Tero's 72nd Anniversary Stadium in Minburi. 
  • Samut Songkhram are now playing at Bangkok University in Thonburi. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

TPL Preview Part 2

Nakhon Ratchasima
Their finishing position this year is probably the most difficult of any to predict. Optimistic fans of the club will look towards 2014’s average attendances and they’ll see the title race as being a two horse race between themselves and Buriram United. On the other hand, the more pragmatic Swatcat won’t have forgotten that Korat were promoted from one of the weakest first divisions in years and, they’ll regard a season of consolidation and a 12th placed finish as a reasonable return. With new signing Bjorn Lindemann, they are guaranteed goals from midfield. Lee Tuck has shown in the first division that he knows where the back of the net is. The Englishman now has to replicate that in the top flight after a disappointing six months at Air Force in 2014. There was talk of Nicola Anelka and then Frank Ohandza joining the Swatcats. Instead they ended up with Ghanaian Dominic Adiyiah. His claim to fame is having his goal-bound header saved on the line by Luis Suarez in the dying minutes of extra time during the 2010 World Cup quarter final in South Africa.

Key Player: Bjorn Lindemann

Last Season: 1st (Division 1)

In 2011 when Navy were relegated from the TPL, a lot of Thai football fans thought they’d gradually slip through the first division into the regional league and we’d never hear of them again. Against the odds though, Navy have returned to the top table after they pipped Bangkok FC to the third promotion spot. Their squad still has a first division look to it although they have added plenty of height with Georgie Welcome (1.92m) from BEC Tero and Australian defender Michael Cvetkovski (1.90m). Angello Machuca has the ability to make the step up from the lower leagues but his questionable temperament could be his downfall. Realistically, survival should be their goal.

Key Player: Georgie Welcome

Last Season: 3rd (Division 1)

This year they’ll play at the Thephasadin Stadium, which is more suitable than them playing at a sparsely filled Rajamangala. The club no longer has any ties with the Saraburi province and they are back to their roots in Bangkok. As a result, support has dwindled and it seems it’s only a matter of time until the club succumbs to a similar fate that TTM have encountered in the past couple of years. Their squad still has reasonable depth to it but many of the better players have been slipping out the exit door. Highly rated Chananan Pombuppha and Narong Jansawek have been allowed to leave while the only overseas player left from last season is Anthony Komenan. Stefano Cugarra Teco is still holding the reins but I get the feeling he could be ousted if results don’t go his way in the early weeks.

Edit (12-2-15): Despite several press reports stating that Osotspa were moving to the Thephasadin, it now appears that they will remain at the Rajamangala.

Key Player: Apipoo Suntornpanavech

Last Season: 11th

As a new season beckons, the Khlong Toei club has had another change of name and a clean sweep of the majority of the playing staff. Most fans don’t know what to expect this coming season but the appointment of Somchai Chuayboonchum indicates the club owners are aiming for survival. On the playing front last year, the season was littered with peaks and troughs. Off the field, the club were summoned by FIFA for not paying a former player’s wages while crowd trouble at Muang Thong saw the club deducted nine points and almost relegated as a consequence. This former problem has rumbled on through the close season and was only resolved a few days ago. The return of fan favourite Diarra Ali was a welcome boast for the Klong Toei Army as was Hironori Saruta’s decision to sign on for another season. Gorka Unda has impressed in pre-season friendlies and if Brent McGrath can get up to match fitness, then Port should be able to stay clear of affairs at the wrong end of the table. 

Edit (14-2-15): The club have new owners. A well known insurance company has invested in the club so expect Port to have more money to spend in the mid-season transfer window.

Key Player: Gorka Unda

Last Season: 13th

The Dragons claimed and impressive fourth placed finish last year and the TPL’s top scorer, Heberty, netted 26 times. There were many interested suitors for the Brazilian but he’s elected to stay at Ratchaburi. He’ll be joined upfront by fellow country man Bruno Lopes and if recent signing from Bangkok Glass Flavien Michelini can find some consistency, then they will be an attacking force to be reckoned with. Former Barcelona youth coach Alex Gomez was going to take over from Ricardo Rodriquez after he left to join Bangkok Glass. However, that task is now in the hands of Martin Freeman lookalike Josep Ferre after health problems caused Gomez to leave his position. Their squad appears too slimline to achieve another top 4 finish, but the top half is certainly attainable.

Key Player: Heberty

Last Season: 4th

Saraburi begin their first season in the TPL after finishing runners-up in Division 1 in 2014. The club now hold all the attention in the town after Osotspa returned to Bangkok when the floodlights at the provincial stadium were deemed unfit to host TPL football in 2014. That problem has now been resolved so Saraburi won’t have to relocate. The TPL newbies have made some astute signings with plenty of TPL experience arriving in the form of Douglas Gardozzo, Bireme Diouf and Guy Hubert. Winger Bernard Henri has taken many plaudits in the lower leagues and this is the time for him to shine at the top level. Finishing in lower mid-table would be a decent return in their TPL maiden season. 

Key Player: Bernard Henri

Last Season: 2nd (Division 1)

It was a welcome return to action for Sisaket after they spent 2013 in the wilderness while a courtroom battle was settled. A team had to be virtually assembled from scratch for 2014 and their target of survival was gleefully achieved. This off season has seen another revamp of the squad with only a handful of players remaining. Despite the signings of a couple of experienced Bulgarians, the new players arriving don’t look any better than the ones that have departed so another campaign of fighting relegation looms. The fans of Sisaket have made their presence felt throughout the country and they are one of the most welcome set of fans anywhere. Their passionate support will be vital to their survival. 

Key Player: Lyuben Nikolov

Last Season: 12th

If Suphanburi overachieved in 2013, then it’s fair to say they underachieved in 2014. With one of the highest wage bills in the TPL, finishing 20 points adrift of winners Buriram would not have impressed their president. The appointment of Velizar Popov never worked out and he has been replaced by Sergio Faras as head coach. The Brazilian has won an impressive list of honours with the most notable being the AFC Champions League with Pohang Steelers in 2009. Suphanburi’s season will depend on how quickly he settles into the Thai game. On the playing front, they’ve brought in Carmelo Gonzalez and Prathum Chuthong from Buriram while the highly rated Marcio Rosario remains as does the lesser rated Sergio van Dijk. With these new recruits, Suphanburi will be striving to break into the top 3.

Key Player: Carmelo Gonzalez

Last Season: 6th

The Grim Reaper continues to linger around the rickety old away end at the TOT stadium waiting to take the soul of this football club into the afterlife. The last couple of seasons have seen TOT get off to a flying start only for them to severely plummet mid-season before scraping a couple of late season victories to survive. Long term foreigners Lee Jun Ki and Takahiro Kawamura have extended their contracts and keeping this pair fit is TOT’s best route to survival. Bas Savage is still there and the impish Juninho has returned for a second spell in Lak Si. The lack of accomplished goalscorer means TOT will need to defend well and eek out several narrow wins to stay up. 

Key Player: Takahiro Kawamura

Last Season: 15th

Monday, February 9, 2015

TPL Preview Part 1

With the new TPL season set to start this Friday, here are my thoughts on the first 9 clubs listed alphabetically from A-M.

Army United
Army United are one of a clutch of mid-table sides that can appear half-decent one week and then the following week look awful. Slightly surprisingly, Gary Stevens remains in charge of team affairs. He didn’t do too badly in the second half of last year, yet at the same time he didn’t bring instant success which in Thai football usually results in a contact being terminated through mutual consent. Army have only registered Zdenko Kaprilik from last season’s foreign contingent. A blow was dealt when Raphael Botti was not included for the first leg due to medical reasons. Dutchman Melvin de Leeuw has caught the eye pre-season and he’ll be supported by the pacy Tangeni Shipahu and Kai Hirano. Those three should provide Army with plenty of ammunition and if Mongkol Tossakrai can replicate his form for the Thai national side during the AFF Suzuki Cup, then they should be able to secure their fourth successive top ten finish.

Key Player: Melvin de Leeuw

Last Season: 9th

Bangkok Glass
The Glass Rabbits finally won some domestic silverware after several years of disappointment. Can their FA Cup triumph three months ago be the catalyst for more success, or will BG revert to their inconsistent self? Ricardo Rodriguez comes in to manage the team after an impressive first season in Thai football at Ratchaburi in 2014. New arrivals include English-Australian defender Matt Smith from Brisbane Roar while King Leandro, as he was known by some at Singh Tarua, will add creativity and plenty of theatrical drama in the final third. Personally, I can’t see the Leandro move working as he has to be at the centre of everything. At Tarua he was allowed this luxury. At BG, he won’t necessarily be top of the pecking order and I can’t see this fit working. Yet again, a cup success appears their best route to silverware in 2015. 

Key Player: Darko Tasevski

Last Season: 10th

Bangkok United
They finally found the right man to lead the squad when Mano Polking was appointed midway through last season. From the outside, it seems like a perfect fit as results in the second half of the previous season proved. Polking has raided his former side Suphanburi bringing in four players (Boskovic, Panupong, Putthinan & Kittipong) while at the same time retaining his best players. With a reported B200 million budget, anything less than a top 6 finish must be regarded as a failure.

Key Player: Romain Gasmi

Last Season: 8th

BEC Tero
Tero won their first trophy in the modern Thai football era claiming the League Cup in October 2014. At the recent AFF Cup and Asian U22 tournaments, they provided many members of the successful Thai sides. With youngsters like Messi Jay (Chanathip Songkrasin), Peerapat Notechaiya, Adisorn Promrak, Tanaboon Kesarat and new boy Adisak Kraisorn blossoming, the time is right for Tero to sustain a serious title bid. At the helm this year is Bozidar Bandovic who was briefly head coach at Buriram United last term. The only foreigner kept from last season is Gilbert Koomson. Former Chonburi players Fode Diakite and Ivan Boskovic join Koomson along with Serb Bojan Beljic and experienced Korean Son Dae Ho.

Key Player: Chanathip Songkrasin

Last Season: 3rd

Buriram United
Buriram claimed back-to-back titles despite some insipid performances in 2014. Many Buriram fans would concede that they won the title courtesy of the poor standard of opposition rather than their own convincing playing style. Last season, the squad looked a bit threadbare, particularly in the AFC Champions League. This has been addressed with several promising Thai youngsters recruited to fill the breach. Nonetheless, a few eyebrows were raised when Spaniards David Rochella and Carmelo Gonzalez were released – although Rochella has recently been resigned to feature in the domestic cups. Javier Patino was an injury concern and he has subsequently left to ply his trade in China. New foreign recruits include Brazilian front men Diogo and Gilberto Macena who’ll be backed up by Kayne Vincent formerly of Songkhla United. They will start the season as title favourites again but it could take them awhile to get into their stride as their early league campaign will be coupled with a testing AFC Champions league draw.

Key Player: Andres Tunez

Last Season: 1st

The Hornbills begin their fourth season in the top league. They’ve yet to finish in the top half and only beat the drop by one point last season. During that campaign, goal scoring was a problem so they’ve addressed that issue by signing Michael Murcy from Police United and Brazilian Alex Maiolino. Chanin Sae-Eae was one of the best keepers in the TPL last year at Singh Tarua and they’ve managed to acquire his services after parent club Chonburi let him leave. Head coach Jadet Meelarp returned to Chonburi and he was quickly replaced by Thawatchai Damrong-Ongtrakul. Last season he had two unconvincing spells in charge at Police United and sandwiched in-between that he had another unimpressive few weeks at the helm of Bangkok United. A top half finish seems unlikely but they should have enough to avoid relegation.

Key Player: Chanin Sae-Eae

Last Season: 14th

Chiang Rai United
After scrapping a late rally of wins in 2013 to avoid the drop, last season was far more comfortable with a 7th placed finish. It’s been a fairly quiet off season with the most notable arrival being Brazilian striker, Renatinho. He’ll replace the departed Leandro Assumpcao. Last season’s top scorer Renan Marques has signed on for another season to ensure that goals won’t be scarce. With the nucleus of their 2014 squad still intact, they’ll be aspiring to build on the progress made last season. 

Key Player: Pichitpong Choeichiu

Last Season: 7th

The Sharks were within touching distance of claiming the double in 2014 but in the end they walked away empty handed. The Chonburi faithful knew their favourites were punching well above their weight yet it still hurt them to be the bridesmaid once again. The meek FA Cup final loss and an incorrect linesman’s flag at Chainat still irk, while the resignation of Mashahiro Wada and the subsequent appointment of Jadet Meelarp hardly brightened the mood. However, with an attacking trident of Thiago Cunha, Juliano Mineiro and Leandro Assumpcao at their disposal, the side promises plenty of goals. At the back the ever reliable Anderson dos Santos remains as do Suttinan Phukhom and goalkeeper Kosin Sinthaweechai. The full back positions could be a concern as could the lack of a creative midfielder to pull the strings in the middle of the park. Some of the new Thai signings appear to have been randomly selected without any proper scouting which suggests Chonburi will fall short again in 2015. 

Key Player: Thiago Cunha

Last Season: 2nd

Muang Thong United
For the second consecutive season, Muang Thong start a campaign with a coach who appears to be heading for the exit door before Easter. If anything, results and performances have gotten worse rather than better since Dragan Talajic took over in July last year. On the playing front, Teerasil Dangda returns after he predictably (at least to us western cynics) failed to make any impact at Almeria in La Liga. Cleiton Silva struggled to make an impression after he arrived last mid-season and MTU fans will be hopeful that he can’t rediscover the scoring touch he displayed at BEC Tero. Mario Gjurovski still remains despite the fact that it’s gone a bit stale for him while Kim Dong Jin will be joined in defence by former Japanese U23 internationalist Naoki Aoyama. Somewhat bizarrely, Muang Thong have decided not to fill their foreign complement with only four non-Thais registered in their squad. 

Key Player: Teerasil Dangda

Last Season: 5th