Jaja and Ekanit key to Chiangrai United’s bid for ACL success

Chiangrai United resume their 2020 AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign with a Matchday Three clash against FC Seoul on Tuesday – just over nine months after their Matchday Two loss at home to Beijing Guoan.

The Beetles were also defeated in the first match of their Group E campaign as Melbourne Victory beat them 1-0 in Australia.

But the Thai champions come into this intensive four-match group stage in better shape than they were at the start of the year, when they were struggling domestically. They are back up to second in the Thai League, having won seven of 10 games since the resumption of fixtures in September.

Opponents FC Seoul had a dismal 2020 season in the K League, while Melbourne Victory, who haven’t played competitively since August, came 10th out of 11 teams in the 2020 A-League season. 

Beijing Guoan fared better in China and the current group leaders will be favourites to stay there.

Here are three things to look for in Chiangrai United’s bid to reach the last 16 of the ACL.

  1. Jaja’s shot at redemption

The large frame; the rumours about his lifestyle; the ill-fated spell in South Korea; the 34 years on the clock.

Eyebrows were raised when Chiangrai turned to Jaja Coelho to replace fellow Brazilian Mailson, who had failed to impress in his short time at the club at the beginning of 2020. 

Jaja was T1’s 2nd top scorer way back in 2017 when he formed a deadly partnership with Diogo Luis Santo at Buriram United. But Buriram decided not to keep him at the club, with president Newin Chidchob aiming some unkind parting shots at the striker for his off-field lifestyle.

Jaja would return to Thailand the following year for a decent but less productive spell at Muangthong United. And then there was the misadventure at Seongnam FC where he did not play a single league match. 

There was much scepticism about his move to Chiangrai but he has begun to silence the critics with some increasingly influential performances. He hit a double in last week’s victory over Muangthong United and was denied a hattrick only by a dubious offside flag.

Jaja showed signs of his 2017 model, with some bulldozing runs and unerring finishes. He may find it harder going against an FC Seoul defence that includes another former Buriram man in Osmar Ibanez but he comes into this sequence of matches with confidence and lifted the morale of the whole side with his performance last week.

The Brazilian would like nothing better than to make a point against a K League team as a way of showing that his time at Seongnam was not truly representative of his abilities.

With Chiangrai’s place in next year’s tournament in doubt, this may be Jaja’s final chance to perform on this stage and he will want to make the most of it.

  1. Stage is set for Ekanit magic

Attacking midfielder Ekanit Panya was a breakout star for club and country in 2019. Having starred in a loan spell at Chiangmai FC in the first half of the year, he was recalled to Chiangrai and played a key role in their title win. 

Ekanit was rewarded with a call-up to the national side and a week before his 20th birthday, he capped a scintillating performance with the winning goal against the UAE in a World Cup qualifying match.

Fans all over Thailand looked forward to the prospect of him lighting up the ACL in 2020, but injury and a pandemic intervened. Ekanit missed the first two ACL matches of the campaign through injury and has had to wait for the opportunity to shine on Asia’s biggest stage. 

Ekanit has yet to rediscover the thrilling form of 2019 on a regular basis and has yet to find the net this year. However, he can really raise his profile by making his mark in Qatar.

When Chiangrai struggled to make chances against Melbourne Victory and Beijing Guoan in the first couple of matches, it seemed they were missing a player like Ekanit who could run at defences and pick out a killer pass. The Beetles will certainly hope that he can end 2020 on a high by demonstrating the form that made him one of the stars of 2019.

  1. Hotheads need to stay calm

Chiangrai are not exactly shrinking violets on the football pitch. They started lifting trophies by winning big matches with a robust physical approach under Alexandre Gama.

Gama may be long gone but enough of the players remain to ensure that this core strength of the team is still central to their approach. While the team can count on the attacking flair of the likes of Ekanit and Chotipat Poomkaew, they also depend much on the midfield tenacity of Phitiwat Sukjitthamakul and the tough defending of Brinner.

However, poor discipline can occasionally let the side down and we saw an example of this last week when Shinnapat Lee-Oh was sent off for a headbutt in added time against Muangthong. 

Midfielder Lee Yong-rae has picked up four yellow cards in 10 matches this season, while Tanasak Srisai is sometimes prone to commit rash challenges. There tends to be more leeway for tough tackling in T1 but punishment is likely to be sterner in this competition.

Chiangrai’s physical style can be an asset if channeled appropriately. They cannot let their heads go down and lose control when things go against them.

The first of four tough matches takes place on Tuesday evening and there are just three days break before another clash with FC Seoul and then the return matches against Melbourne Victory and Beijing.

With no points from the first two matches, Chiangrai are certainly up against it from the start, but if they can stay compact and disciplined while the attacking players find their best form, they might make an impact.

Paul Murphy

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