Chiangrai United travel to Uzbekistan to compete in their second ever AFC Champions League group stage, having been given passage to the competition proper thanks to the withdrawal of the A-League clubs.
The Beetles find themselves in Group H with Jeonbuk Hyundai, Gamba Osaka and Tampines Rovers.
The road to ACL 2021
After finishing third at the end of the first leg of the 2020-21 Thai League season, Chiangrai expected to face a round of play-offs against K-League side Daegu FC. Their lucky break has seen them qualify for their second group stage in two seasons.
The Northerners ultimately finished the season in fourth, 23 points behind champions BG Pathum though just four away from the tally of 58 which was enough to see them in the title 2019. The erratic league schedule and complications caused by COVID-19 make it difficult to determine if Chiangrai have improved or regressed since that historic achievement, something that their upcoming continental adventure should shed more light on. Lastly, they also emerged victorious in the 2020-21 FA Cup, lifting that trophy for the third time in just four years by beating a young Chonburi side in the final.
The key players
Chiangrai United captain Phitiwat has consistently been a crucial part of any success the Beetles have enjoyed. Capable of playing as both a classic defensive midfield destroyer and an energetic box-to-box, Phitiwat has gravitated towards the latter at club level to great effect. His ability to win the ball and dominate physical battles are crucial weapons which Chiangrai have to utilize when facing the biggest teams on the continent. He has also become a regular for the Thai national team, starting in all but one of the War Elephants’ games in World Cup qualifying.
Formerly a right-sided winger, Siwakorn transformed into a central-midfield playmaker under coach Ailton Silva in 2019 and has since found his best form, using his left foot to dictate play and break down enemy lines. His excellent performances were rewarded with a national team debut that same year, and he has been consistently linked to moves abroad.
The 36-year-old Brazilian forward has been Chiangrai’s talisman since signing with the club during the 2018 season. He has scored 51 goals in 82 league games for the club, and was involved in three of the four goals Chiangrai scored in their last ACL campaign. Despite his age, he was rewarded with an unprecedented three-year contract last season.
At the center of Chiangrai’s back three, Brinner Henrique’s game relies heavily on his physicality. Flanked by ball-player Shinnaphat on one side and the more canny Tanasak or Sarawut on the other, the team often relies on Brinner’s pace and strength to cut out aerial threats and put in last-ditch tackles.
Emerson Pereira earned himself the full-time job after Chiangrai held their own in last year’s edition of the tournament, and went on to earn a highly respectable fourth place finish and lift the 2020-21 FA Cup.
Originally an assistant to Ailton Silva, Emerson remained as part of the backroom staff through the tenure of Masami Taki before getting the nod to replace the Japanese coach at the end of 2020. He continues the same pragmatic approach laid down by his predecessors, with the consistency of his side being its core strength.
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
The K-League giants wrapped up their fourth consecutive and eighth overall league title last season, and are undoubtedly one of the continent’s biggest clubs. They recently added a Thai player to their ranks, signing Sasalak Haiprakhon on loan from Buriram United, though he is not in the squad for this competition.
Jeonbuk’s record against Thai sides is strong, as they have won six, drawn two and lost two in their Champions League matches against Buriram United, Muangthong United and BEC Tero spanning back to 2004. However, the side have not been at their best this season, and currently trail rivals and defending Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai in the K-League.
Gamba Osaka stunned the J.League last season by finishing as runners-up behind Kawasaki Frontale, but their form this season has seen them slump to 17th in the table at the time of writing. The side have picked up 14 points from 15 games, scoring just seven goals in the process, and have sacked coach Tsuneyasu Miyamoto due to the poor results.
Despite this, due to the quality throughout the league, the J.League outfit are likely to still pose a threat on the continent. Gamba are also unbeaten against Thai opposition in this competition, managing a win and a draw against each Chonburi and Buriram in 2008 and 2014 respectively.
Tampines Rovers qualified by finishing second to Albirex Niigata in the S-League last season, making them the highest-placed local team. This will be their 6th time competing in the AFC Champions League, but their first in the group stage, having failed to get past the first round of qualifying in the previous five attempts.
The S-League outfit are incredibly youthful, boasting six first team players under the age of 23 and a head coach who is only 30 years old himself. Former Trat and Prachuap defender Baikhakki Khaizan is one of the few experienced heads in the team and will likely be a key player for the side.
The prediction – 3rd
Chiangrai’s experience in last season’s competition, where they faced Beijing Guoan, FC Seoul and Melbourne Victory, could be a major asset this time around. However, the traveling, the intensity of the schedule and the calibre of opponents in this group will make things difficult for them.
Jeonbuk look like the strongest side and will be expected to progress as group winners. A second-place finish is not outside the realm of possibility if Gamba Osaka carries their domestic form into this competition, but a third-place finish behind the Korean and Japanese sides looks like the most likely outcome.