BG begin bid to make Asian impact after stunning Thai League triumph

BG Pathum United launch their first AFC Champions League campaign since 2015 when they take on Filipino side Kaya FC on Saturday.

The Thai champions’ only previous appearance in the tournament ended in the playoff round when they were beaten 3-0 by Beijing Guoan in 2015. 

This time they enter the competition in the group stage where they also meet South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai and Vietnam’s Viettel. BG have home advantage as the Group F matches will be played at their Leo Stadium (renamed the Pathum Thani Stadium for AFC competition).

The road to ACL 2021

From T2 to ACL in 20 months. BG’s journey over the last two years has been the stuff of dreams. Their relegation to the second tier in 2018 was as big a surprise as winning their first ever T1 title in their first season back in 2020-21.

BG’s ambition had never quite matched their achievements until now. Not only did they become Thai champions for the first time, they won the league at a canter, finishing 14 points ahead of runners-up Buriram United. They now have the chance to follow up a dominant domestic campaign by making an impact at the highest level in Europe.

They will, however, face this new challenge without the head coach who led them to the title. Due to AFC licencing requirements, Dusit Chalermsan has had to step aside, with former boss Aurelio Vidmar returning to the club he managed between 2016 and 2017.

The key players

Andres Tunez

The former Buriram United centre-back boasts several years of ACL experience and has even participated in the Copa America for Venezuela. The 34-year-old was part of the meanest backline in the league in 2020-21, while he also managed to get on the scoresheet six times.

Tunez’s winning mentality rubs off on his team-mates and he will certainly be driven to reach the Round of 16 for the second time in his career.

Diogo Luis Santo

Diogo played alongside Tunez for several years at Buriram and gained further ACL experience during a couple of seasons at JDT in Malaysia.

The Brailian striker is regarded by many as the best player ever to play in the Thai League. While he scores plenty of goals, he is also a very willing worker and often drifts out the wings to get involved in build-up play.

Thitipan Puangchan

BG’s midfield dynamo will be a vital presence in the battle for supremacy in the middle of the park. He paired very effectively with Sarach Yooyen in the T1 season, with Sarach sitting deeper and allowing Thitipan to drive forward.

The former Muangthong United and Chiangrai United star should be peaking at the age of 27, and this is a great opportunity to remind the whole of Asia why Oita Trinita took him to the J.League on a loan deal.

Head coach

It was a surprise to most when rumours emerged that Aurelio Vidmar may return to lead BG’s ACL challenge. There was an awareness that Dusit lacked the necessary qualifications, but Vidmar did not leave the club on the best of terms when his first spell ended in 2017.

Vidmar is someone with a clear philosophy of play. In his first spell in charge of BG, he integrated an attacking, possession-based style of football, which proved popular amongst the Rabbits’ supporters. Vidmar will likely stay true to his ideals, but now with an improved and experienced playing squad compared to his previous term.

The opponents

Ulsan Hyundai

The ACL title holders will clearly pose a very stiff challenge as they bid to retain the trophy they won by beating Persepolis in last year’s final. 

Former Muangthong and Pattaya United striker Junior Negrao, the man whose seven goals were key to Ulsan’s success, has moved on. But Ulsan have kicked on and currently sit top of K League 1. 

A domestic title win would be hugely significant for a club that has been champions of their own country since 2005, but they will surely also be keen to make a strong defence of their continental crown.

Midfielder Yoon Bit-garam is in the form of his life for Ulsan and BG will have to make sure the MVP of ACL 2020 does not run the show from the middle of the park.

Viettel

After an indifferent start to their title defence, the Vietnamese champions hit form to keep the pressure on league leaders Gia Lai, coached by Thai legend Kiatisuk Senamuang. 

They had taken 19 points from the previous 21 when the V.League paused at the beginning of May. With Vietnamese football on a high following the country’s progress to the final stage of World Cup qualifying, Viettel are likely to come into this competition full of confidence.

Nguyen Hoang Duc has played a key role in Viettel’s recent success, while also beginning to establish himself with the national side. The 23-year-old midfielder has been an ever present this season and can be the man to make his side tick.

Kaya FC

The club from the Philippines earned their place in the group stage by defeating an under strength Shanghai Port on Wednesday evening. Although the Chinese side did not travel to Thailand with their first-team squad, it was still an upset for the second-placed team in the Philippines Football League to win the tie.

Kaya will be clear underdogs in the group, but Wednesday’s performance and result were a sign that they are unlikely to be easy to beat. And they will be full of confidence after such a memorable victory.

Daizo Horikoshi may well be the danger man for Kaya. The Japanese winger is the most likely to provide the creative spark needed to break down an opposition defence.

The prediction – 2nd

There would be more optimism had the group stage taken place in April, with BG in top form and operating with a system that other T1 clubs just couldn’t unlock. 

It is unclear how much the break will affect momentum and the change of head coach surely isn’t ideal in the circumstances. The decision to leave centre-back Irfan Fandi out of the squad has puzzled most, given what an important role he played as part of a near impregnable back three alongside Tunez and Victor Cardozo. This is an ominous sign that external influences may be trying to fix what is not broken.

However, with home advantage and a team with several leaders, BG should have enough to progress to claim the runner-up spot. Ulsan will be clear favourites to top the group, so the clashes with Viettel may well be decisive. 

Paul Murphy

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