Ratchaburi steel themselves for Champions League bow

Ratchaburi kickoff their first ever AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign against South Korea’s Pohang Steelers in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Despite ‘home’ advantage the Dragons will be the underdogs in a group that also includes Japan’s Nagoya Grampus and Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT).

It is unfortunate that the Thai side could not showcase the beautiful Mitr Phol stadium in their hometown. Instead, the Group G matches will be played at the cavernous Rajamangala Stadium – the spiritual home of the national team.

The road to ACL 2021

Ratchaburi earned their place in the tournament in unconventional fashion. First, they had good fortune as Covid-19 saw a change in the Thai League calendar. This meant that the Top Four teams at the halfway point of the season qualified. Having been in fourth place, the Dragons went into a playoff spot.

There was further good luck when Group G’s Chinese representatives Jiangsu withdrew from the competition, giving them and Pohang – who they had been scheduled to meet in a playoff – direct access to the group stage. The fact that they finished the Thai League season down in eighth spot highlights just how fortunate they are to be here.

Given form in the second half of last season and the recent loss of inspirational skipper Philip Roller, the fans will go into the tournament with more hope than expectation, but there is much to look forward to.

The key players

Steeven Langil

There will be much expectation placed on the shoulders of the Martinique winger. Langil has graced the Thai League with his mercurial talent since 2019.

The 33-year-old boasts experience of playing in the UEFA Champions League and scored the winning goal for Auxerre against Ajax back in 2010. It may be more than a decade since that memorable moment, but Langil may just be inspired by being back on a continental stage.

Sanrawat Dechmitr

Sanrawat recently joined on loan from Bangkok United and this could be a great opportunity to prove something. The midfielder is one of the most gifted Thai players of his generation, but he has flattered to deceive on too many occasions.

He has been written off by many as a talented underachiever but on his day, he has the passing range and vision to cut through a defence. If he can perform as well on the field as he does on social media, he could make a big difference.

Nukoolkit Krutyai

Nukoolkit is a centre-back who has just failed to convince the top Thai clubs that he has what it takes. At Buriram United, he sat and watched from the bench as his teammates racked up an impressive 10 points in the ACL group stage in 2015. The following year, he made a few appearances in an ill-fated campaign that saw them earn just one point.

He moved to Muangthong United but again failed to establish himself in the first team before he became a mainstay at Trat and Sukhothai. It is a big ask for Nukoolkit to come into the Ratchaburi side and become the key man in defence, but, at 28, this is a big chance to prove that he can be more than just a squad player at this level.

The Joker

The suggestion was greeted with disbelief and dismissed as a publicity stunt. But it seems that Thai celebrity Phakin ‘Tono’ Khamwilaisak is indeed in the Ratchaburi squad. The 34-year-old has never played professional football.

We have seen the likes of singer Olly Murs and actor Martin Compston impress with their skills in charity games alongside the pros. But they then resumed their careers in their chosen professions.

Tono might make the bench but any appearance will surely only be made when the result is beyond doubt.

The opposition

Pohang Steelers

Pohang have been champions of Asia three times, most recently in 2009. This will be their first ACL participation since 2016, so it is a step in the right direction after some relatively lean years. 

They finished third in K League 1 to seal qualification and currently sit in 5th spot. After a stuttering start to the season, form picked up and they have lost only once in the last 10 league matches.

Wing-back Kang Sang-woo is one to watch. He plays a vital role in both attack and defence, in a similar way to Theerathon Bunmathan when he played in the Thai League.

JDT

The Malaysian champions require no introduction to Thai fans. JDT were regular opponents for Thai League in ACL qualifiers for a number of years before Malaysia earned a place in the group stages.

JDT’s improvement over the years has been impressive and with many of the Harimau Malaya national squad in the team, Ratchaburi will be well aware of the threat they pose.

Attacking midfielder Safawi Rasid, scorer of Malaysia’s winning goal against Thailand last week, will be one of the main danger men for JDT. 

Nagoya Grampus

Nagoya’s return to the big stage comes after an absence of nine years. The club that brought Gary Lineker, Dragan Stojkovic and Arsene Wenger to Japan has had a difficult decade that included a relegation to J2 in 2016.

However, they are on track for a return to the ACL in 2022 as they sit currently 2nd in the J.League table. However, they have been in indifferent form after a strong start to the season. They began the campaign with six straight wins, but have won just five of the 14 matches since, failing to score in the past three fixtures.

Australian goalkeeper Mitch Langerak has been a vital presence this season. Nagoya have the second strongest defence in the league and if you take away seven goals conceded in two damaging defeats to runaway leaders Kawasaki Frontale, Langerak has seen his goal breached just six times in 18 matches.

The prediction – 4th

Ratchaburi’s inexperience at this level and the challenges in integrating new players into their squad make this a tough assignment.

The circus around the bizarre signing of a celebrity doesn’t help create the impression that they are keen to make an impact on the tournament.

It is difficult to see Ratchaburi as anything other than makeweights in the group, assuming the other sides have ambitions to reach the next stage.

Paul Murphy

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