BG Pathum United officially failed to defend their Thai League title last weekend, but they nonetheless come into this tournament on flying form. The side are currently on a run of five successive league victories, and have won six and drawn one since the appointment of head coach Makoto Teguramori.
They are almost guaranteed to finish second, and thus qualify for next seasons’ AFC Champions League as a result. With just one league game awaiting them after this competition, the Rabbits’ undivided attention will go to qualifying for the knockout stage for the second year running.
Unlike in the Rabbits’ Group F last season, there is no single standout team. They are joined by Australian champions Melbourne City FC (part of the Abu Dhabi owned City Football Group) Korean FA Cup winners Jeonnnam Dragons and Filipino side United City FC. As a result, it may be the hardest group to predict in the entire tournament.
Interestingly, Jeonnam Dragons are actually in the second tier of Korean football, and finished 4th in K2 last season. Their route to FA Cup glory saw them pick up wins against prestigious opponents such as Pohang, Ulsan and finally Daegu in the showpiece event. They will be making their first appearance on the continent since 2008 and will be eager to make a big impression.
Many neutrals tip Melbourne City FC as the favourites, given their recent domestic success. They are also expected to take the competition more ‘seriously’ than their other Australian counterparts, as their membership of the City Football Group means they are more eager to make an impression on the continental and global stage. They face BG Pathum United in the opening match, which could well set the tone for the entire campaign.
Lastly, United City will be looking to build on their showing in 2021, where they came third in Group I behind continental heavyweights Daegu FC and Kawasaki Frontale. They were nominated for a second chance after the cancellation of the 2021 Philippines Football League, and will be eager to take the opportunity. However, the side have to contend with the lack of domestic football in recent months and the departure of captain and talisman Stephan Shrock, who is expected to join a Thai club in the upcoming transfer window. They are coached by Jason Withe, who previously managed BEC Tero, Nakhon Pathom United and Super Power Samut Prakan in the Thai League.
Players to Watch
The Rabbits have become a more expansive and attacking side since the appointment of head coach Makoto Teguramori – a very interesting development considering he is known for more pragmatic and defensive football in his homeland. As a result, the side’s creative players have been given a chance to shine.
New signing Worachit Kanitsribampen has long been considered one of Thailand’s most promising young players during his time starring for Chonburi FC. However, detractors have cited his lack of physicality as a key reason why he is unable to make the next step and play at a higher level. Making his debut in this competition’s group stage, the 24-year-old attacking midfielder will be eager to prove his doubters wrong. Partnering him in midfield will be playmaker Chaowat Veerachart, who has been with the Rabbits since 2014. An injury during his time playing for Cerezo Osaka’s U-23 side has slowed his development, but he is undoubtedly among the nation’s most talented footballers. Having recently debuted and scored for the senior national team, Chaowat’s morale will be high going into the tournament.
The Rabbits’ foreign players have always been crucial to their success, but as of late it’s been their ASEAN stars who have been making the difference – Singaporean brothers Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi. They will have to contend with the more experienced Diogo Luis Santo, Victor Cardozo and Andres Tunez for the four foreign quota slots, but it will be a big surprise if both aren’t regularly in the starting lineup. Central defender Irfan missed the competition’s group stage last time out, as coach Aurelio Vidmar opted to bolster his midfield with Kevin Ingreso, but came in to play a starring role in the side’s knockout-stage match against Jeonbuk Hyundai. Meanwhile, younger brother Ikhsan has been on fire since joining from Norwegian side FK Jerv. The 23-year-old striker has netted 8 times in his first 14 appearances, and recently scored four goals in a single game against Prachuap FC. Both players are likely to catch the eye of the continents’ elite this month.