Chiangrai United need to hit the ground running as Thai League returns

Defending champions Chiangrai United host title-chasing Port FC as the Thai League (T1) restarts after a five-week suspension.

Sunday’s fixture is a rescheduled match from the first leg of the season and there will not be a full card until next weekend.

However, this clash between Chiangrai and Port promises a dramatic return to action.

Here are three things to look out for.

1. Can Beetles shake off the rust?

While the rest of the T1 clubs have had an enforced five-week break, it has been almost a full two months since Chiangrai’s last competitive match. The Beetles’ involvement in the AFC Champions League (ACL) meant they returned to Thailand for a two-week quarantine before the second Covid wave extended their period of inactivity.

You have to to back to November 18th for Chiangrai’s last T1 fixture – a 2-1 victory over Muangthong United. They have since seen the departure of stalwart midfielder Lee Yong-rae and striker Jaja Coelho. The arrival of Felipe Amorim from Suphanburi may offer a good attacking foil for Bill, and there will be hopes that Ekanit Panya can find his best form in the second half of the season.

An unwelcome legacy of the win over Muangthong is that centre-back Shinnaphat Leeaoh is suspended, while Wasan Homsaen – another recent signing from Suphanburi – is also suspended.

Nevertheless, Chiangrai conceded just three goals in the final three matches of their ACL campaign, so they should be confident in their ability to keep out the best Port has to offer.

2. Port’s striking options

In 2019, Port’s mid-season squad shake-up was ultimately an act of self-harm that derailed their title bid. This season, they have resisted the urge to make wholesale changes and the proven quality of Yannick Boli to replace Heberty Fernandes is the only significant change.

In the second half of 2019, Port often played without a recognised striker, pushing attacking midfielder Sergio Suarez into the most advanced position. Now, they are spoiled for choice as Boli, Nelson Bonilla and Adisak Kraisorn battle for a starting spot.

Head coach Sarawut Treepan now has the job of making the most of having three of T1’s top strikers at his disposal. Port sit 10 points behind league leaders BG Pathum United and this is their game in hand.

There is no margin for error in Port’s pursuit of BG. If they aim to ensure that the T1 title race stays alive, they need to keep the pressure on. Making the most of their attacking talents will be vital.

3. Last stand in Chiangrai’s title defence

Sitting 18 points behind BG, retaining the T1 title already looks beyond Chiangrai United. Even victory in both of their games in hand would leave a near insurmountable 12-point gap. What is certain is that anything other than three points in this fixture will effectively spell the end of any faint hopes the Beetles have of being champions again.

Chiangrai’s 2019 triumph was one of the biggest all-time upsets in Thai football as the side from the north took advantage of the crumbling form of the more fancied Buriram United, Bangkok United and Port. Instead of building on this, the Beetles have been pragmatic. They retain the services of key players like Bill, Ekanit and Phitiwat Sukjithammakul, but they have not made the necessary investments to keep up with the likes of BG and Port.

Sunday’s fixture is an opportunity to demonstrate again that a prudent financial approach can work better than big spending. With both sides likely to be a little off the pace following such a long period out of action, it is an opportunity for the teams to show they have either the hunger to fight to hold onto their title, or the spirit to push the current league leaders all the way.

Paul Murphy

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