China’s struggles in the AFC Champions League has opened the door for countries to earn more group stage slots, leaving three familiar ASEAN rivals are set to battle it out.
Thailand is no stranger to facing off against Vietnam and Malaysia. The sides regularly butt heads in the AFF Cup and SEA Games, and were recently pitted against each other in World Cup Qualifying. Last year, Thai champions BG took on their Vietnamese counterparts Viettel in Group F, while Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) got the better of struggling Ratchaburi in Group G.
The three countries may not be facing each other directly in this years’ AFC Champions League, but the battle between the two goes on in terms of coefficient points.
Coefficients, in short, are the point system used to determine the ranking of countries within AFC competitions. They are a ‘score’ determined by how well that country’s clubs (and national team) do in major competitions. Higher coefficient points typically give countries more benefits for said competitions. For example, in the Asian Cup, national teams with higher coefficients are ‘seeded’ in Pots 1 and 2, ensuring easier matches in the group stage, while those with lower coefficients are in Pots 3 and 4.
In the AFC Champions League, coefficients are used to determine how many clubs from a given country are able to participate in the competition, and furthermore how many of those clubs enter directly into the group stage. Table 1 below shows the breakdown of coefficients and slots for East Asian countries in this years’ competition (2021-22).
Prior to 2020, Thailand had “1+2” slots, meaning that one club entered directly into the group stage while two further teams played in the qualifying rounds. However, thanks to overtaking Australia and an expansion of the competition, Thailand now has “2+2” slots; this year, BG Pathum and Chiangrai went straight to the group stage while Port FC and Buriram United played in qualifying.
Currently, points gathered from this year will come into effect in determining how many slots countries get starting from the 2024-25 ACL campaign onwards. Table 2 below, courtesy of FootyRankings, shows how it stands in East Asia at the moment.
Just like in a regular league, three coefficients points are assigned for an ACL win, followed by one for a draw and none for a loss. Qualifying for the knockout stage gives a team three bonus points, and each subsequent round progressed after that gives one additional point. The performances of all the teams from the given country are averaged out to give us the year’s points total.
Thailand is under threat of losing their ranking as the region’s ‘fourth best’ member association, and their 2+2 slots as a result, from both Vietnam and Malaysia this year. Furthermore, Thailand has two distinct disadvantages when compared to Malaysia and Vietnam. For starters, the pair each have one representative, meaning that points picked up by JDT and Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) won’t be averaged out with another (potentially weaker) side. Secondly, both nations also have representatives in the AFC Cup, which are also averaged between them and then added to the points picked up in the Champions League. Coefficient points available in the AFC Cup are just 1/3 of what is available in the premier competition.
So where does that leave Thailand, and what are the chances they’ll be overtaken by Vietnam and Malaysia?
In short, Malaysia need to finish 2022 with 6 more coefficient points collected than Thailand; a feat which will be close to impossible of JDT don’t make the knockout stage. Vietnam, on the other hand, only need to collect at least two fewer points in Thailand to overtake them; Hanoi’s excellent run to the semi-finals of the 2019 AFC Cup making the difference. Their ACL representative HAGL can still finish the campaign with a maximum of five points collected, meaning that Viettel will need to pick up the rest in June, and are likely Thailand’s biggest threat.
BG Pathum United remain the War Elephants’ best hope this season, as they’re very close to booking their place in the knockout stage. They will be looking to beat Jeonnam Dragons in their final match to secure their spot. A run to the competitions quarter-finals, which would match Thailand’s best ever performance in the competition, would net them a total of 21 points. When averaged with Chiangrai, that will give Thailand 11.25 coefficient points; meaning Vietnam must target 9.25 and Malaysia 17.25 to overtake them.
Tomorrow’s results will have a significant bearing on the race. Malaysia will remain in the running if JDT make the knockout stage, while any points HAGL can take off of Sydney FC will be huge. BG need to get the business done against Jeonnam, and the Thai League as a whole will watch the AFC Cup with bated breath.
Regardless of the outcome, ASEAN nations have made the most of China’s current crisis, and could be the on the cusp of a huge step forward for regional football.