The Isan derby between Buriram United and Nakhon Ratchasima may just about be the standout fixture of Thai League (T1) Matchday Nine.
But there’s a strangely flat feel to the latest meeting of the two best supported clubs in the country due to limitations on fans and the league form of both.
Leaders BG Pathum United aim to maintain their five-point gap when they host Samut Prakan City, while Bangkok United surely can’t slip up again when they welcome Sukhothai.
Here is a look ahead to some of the highlights of T1 Matchday Nine.
Northeastern rivals need a lift
When Nakhon Ratchasima were promoted to T1 in 2015, the potential for the club looked huge. They had a big stadium for a large fan base, and there was much talk of the investment that would go into the team.
It seemed to point to the possibility of a local and competitive rivalry with northeastern neighbours Buriram United, who were dominating Thai football at the time.
However, the Swatcats did not have the financial strength to do more than setting into mid-table mediocrity or worse. Buriram continued to win many of the big prizes but there are question marks over their ability to challenge for this year’s title after suffering their third defeat of the season last weekend.
Sunday’s fixture at the Chang Arena is a clash between the teams in 10th and 14th place – not the rivalry that might have been envisioned five years ago.
There is intrigue of sorts, however, as Buriram need to follow up last week’s loss at BG with a positive response. The Thunder Castle looked blunt in attack when they faced the league leaders, while only an inspired performance by Siwarak Tedsungnoen in goal kept the deficit at 1-0.
Suphanat Mueanta will surely start in attack for Buriram, with Marko Scepovic looking off the pace and Supachai Jaided still unable to build on the promise he was showing two years ago. And Gidi Kanuk – surprisingly left on the bench at BG – is also likely to get the nod in a midfield that lacked creativity at the Leo Stadium.
Nakhon Ratchasima may be in the relegation zone, but they will have been encouraged by a 2-2 draw at Samut Prakan last time out, having trailed 2-0.
It might not be the headline Isan derby that some might have anticipated several years back, but it remains an extremely important match to two teams that really need the points.
Samut Prakan next in line for relentless BG
Buriram United became the latest victims of the BG juggernaut last Saturday, falling to a 1-0 defeat, and slipping 12 points behind the league leaders.
This came after BG Pathum United had won in similarly controlled and convincing fashion at Port FC and Bangkok United.
Dusit Chalermsan’s side now have a five-point lead at the top of T1 and the manner of recent performances suggests it will be tough to shift them. Speculation that strikers Diogo Luis Santo and Teerasil Dangda are set to join the club adds to the growing conviction that BG are now favourites for the title.
Samut Prakan City are Saturday’s visitors to the Leo Stadium and may pose a different threat to the one offered by Buriram. The onus will be very much on the home side to take the three points, but Samut Prakan have shown defensive solidity, with three clean sheets in the last four games.
The visitors are unlikely to have Barros Tardeli available as he is on loan from BG but Jaroensak Vonggorn and Teeraphol Yoryoei should offer an attacking threat, while Chakkit Laptrakul may be keen to remind his former club of the qualities they deemed surplus to requirements. BG will be missing Irfan Fandi after the defender suffered a collar bone injury that is set to keep him out for 2-3 months.
The Sea Fang will surely be keen to get their noses in front. BG are proving very tough to break down once they take the lead.
Bangkok United under pressure as Sukhothai come calling
From five wins in a row to three defeats on the trot is a pretty spectacular turnaround. Bangkok United have managed it and transformed a season of extreme promise to one that threatens to turn into another hard luck story.
In last weekend’s loss at Ratchaburi, Mano Polking’s side did show spirit to come within minutes of a draw, having recovered from losing a goal and a man just before half-time. But real title contenders tend to hold on for the point instead of slipping to a third successive defeat.
Another loss is unimaginable and would place huge pressure on Polking as he seeks to finally deliver the trophy he has repeatedly come close to in his six years at the club.
Looking at things positively, they remain in third place and a not insurmountable seven points from top spot. However, the recent run of defeats reinforces the impression that Bangkok United can have a soft centre when the pressure is on.
Visitors Sukhothai will be no pushovers on Sunday as they arrive on a five-game unbeaten run and sit just one point behind the Bangkok Angels. The Fire Bats frontline of John Baggio, Ibson Melo and Evandro Paulista looks like it could help the club to their best season in several years help them avoid the usual relegation battle.
Rayong aim to avoid another loss
Seven matches and zero points. Rayong FC have had a truly dismal start to life in T1.
On Saturday, they make their latest attempt to earn a win or at least a draw when they host troubled Port FC. Port have earned a reprieve with the Thai League overturning a forfeit defeat to Muang Thong United due to electrical failure, with the game now to be rescheduled.
Had they lost that one, it would have been three defeats in four for a side with title ambitions. However, they remain just a run of good results away from reviving their T1 hopes as would-be rivals like Buriram and Bangkok United stumble.
By the law of averages, Rayong are due to take points sooner rather than later. They came within a couple of minutes of a draw at BG last time out and will be keen to make it happen before they become completely cut off at the bottom.