After spending the last three years as a rising force in the Thai League, Port FC finally have the chance to showcase their abilities to the best on the continent when they kick off their first ACL group stage campaign against Kitchee on Thursday.
One of the oldest clubs in the country, the Klongtoei Lions were regulars in the top flight under the stewardship of their founders, the Thai Port Authority. However, it was their acquisition by businesswoman Nualphan Lamsam (known locally as ‘Madame Pang’) which has transformed them into a powerhouse in the domestic league. Since returning to the top flight in 2017 and registering a 9th place finish, the side have become serial title challengers and now boast one of the division’s strongest squads.
Road to ACL
Port faced a bitter disappointment in last season’s Champions League, suffering a shock defeat at the hands of Ceres-Negros (now United City) of the Philippines in the first qualifying round. However, their ascendancy in the Thai League was eventually rewarded later that same year, as they finished second at the end of the campaign’s first leg to seal a place directly in the ACL group stage.
Drawn in a group with aforementioned Hong Kong champions Kitchee, along with Japanese side Cerezo Osaka and the ‘youth team’ of Guangzhou FC, the Bangkok club will fancy their chances of progressing to the knockout stage.
Suarez finished last season as Port’s highest scorer with 13 goals and best assist-maker with a tally of six. He has been with the club since 2017 and has featured for them in over 100 games. Most comfortable as a midfield playmaker or ‘number 10,’ he may be called upon to lead the line in the absence of a clear, first-choice ‘number 9’ in Port’s ACL squad. Regardless of where he plays, his main strength – the ability to produce something special in the final third – will be crucial for the Klongtoei side.
Recently signed from Sukhothai FC, John Baggio has been one of the Thai League’s standout performers for a number of seasons. The Madagascar international is known for his incredible dribbling ability and creative spark, often making the difference for the Fire Bats during his five-year spell at the club. This will be Baggio’s second ACL campaign, having played a key part in Sukhothai’s two-game stint in the competition where they beat Yadanarbon and lost to Shanghai SIPG in qualifying back in 2017.
Signed from fellow Champions League side Ratchaburi, Philip Roller has been on Port’s radar for a number of seasons and has finally made the move to Klongtoei after the best season of his career. Despite playing as a right-back, Roller finished the 2020-21 campaign as the highest-scoring local player with 16 goals from 29 games. His attacking prowess make him a capable winger as well as a full-back, and it will be interesting to see how he is deployed by Port in this competition.
Sarawut Treephan was appointed 6 games into the 2020-21 Thai League season, and was already the club’s third head coach of the campaign. Having previously worked as an academy coach at arch rivals Muangthong United and in the lower leagues, he joined Port in 2019 as Choktawee Promrut’s assistant. Not much was expected from ‘Coach Oud,’ who was seen as a temporary fix at the time of his appointment.
However, Sarawut’s tenure started with a stunning eight-game winning run in the Thai League which saw them temporarily emerge as BG Pathum’s primary chasers for the Thai League title. The side tailed off towards the end of the campaign, but the now pro-license coach kept his job and will be aiming to make his mark on the continent.
Cerezo Osaka have been fairly consistent top-half finishers since their promotion back to J1 in 2017, and qualified for their fourth ever AFC Champions League campaign by finishing fourth in the league last season. However, the side comes into this tournament on relatively poor form, having failed to win in their last six league games. Cerezo have Vietnamese international goalkeeper Dang Van Lam on their books, who will be a familiar face after the two years he spent with Muangthong United.
Hong Kong champions Kitchee are regulars in the competition’s qualifying rounds, and will be making their second ever appearance in the groups tage this season. Their hopes of causing an upset will likely center around star striker Dejan Damjanovic, who is the AFC Champions League’s tied all-time leading goalscorer after the prolific years he spent with K-League sides FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings. Despite being 39, the Montenegrin forward is in fine form, netting 15 goals from just 12 games in the domestic league last season, and will surely want to make the record his own with his new club.
Guangzhou FC ‘B’
Like all of the Chinese Super League clubs at this year’s ACL, Guangzhou FC (formerly Guangzhou Evergrande) will be sending their youth team to the tournament, with none of the first team players traveling. Manager Fabio Cannavaro will also be sending an assistant coach in his place.
The prediction – 2nd
Port should have what it takes to get the better of both Kitchee and Guangzhou FC’s B-team, so it will ultimately come down to their rivalry against Cerezo Osaka for top spot. In the past, Thai sides have found the most success against Japanese opposition by being solid defensively and stealing goals on the break, which is not Port’s strong suit. Expect Cerezo to emerge victorious from this group, while the Klongtoei Lions should pick up enough points to secure progression via the second place rankings.