When I signed up to write this preview, the plan was simple. With months to go, I’d have an excuse to re-watch the Batman movies, pick out a few lines that could be used to vaguely reference football, Port or Sukhothai to quote, and get the juices flowing on the bat/batman puns front. Throw in a bit of “You don’t know how lucky you are not spending months away from Thai football!” Job done. So, with less 72 hours ‘til I get on a plane to Bangkok, I’ve not watched a minute of any Batman film. There’s a moan about Thai football coming and the small matter of some Brazilian fella who used to make the odd appearance for Port back when we were a second-tier team, who recently blagged a gig at Sukhothai (aka the Fire Bats) in their battle to avoid the drop.
Firstly, the moan. If you spend any time reading about Thai football online, as with most things in Thailand, it isn’t too hard to find a foreigner complaining about how much better it is back where they came from or just that it simply isn’t very good in Thailand. Since I started following Port in 2015 the knockers have collectively covered… well, I think I’ve now seen pretty much every facet of Thai football criticized. Everyone has the right to an opinion, and Thai football gets a lot of things wrong, but it’s not a European league and never will be. Expecting it to live up to that standard is setting yourself up for disappointment. Nor personally do I have any desire for it to mirror the overpriced, over policed, corporate anti-fun day out that attending sport in England has become. That said, on Sunday football returns for the first round of league games in 5 weeks (6 weeks for a Port home game) which is a just plain rubbish. In the 10 weeks prior, there have been just 5 league matches and a single round played in each of the cups. Again, not good enough. You don’t have to go too much further back and you hit the mid-season break on top of that.
Now that its back, the football comes thick and fast. There are 10 weeks of the season left, and in that time Port will play 9 league matches and at least 2 cup matches (potentially 8 were we to make both finals). Great, but the flow of the season has been destroyed. How fit are players? Where have they been? Have we had a mini preseason? Whilst I expect it will have little effect on the level of attendance at the PAT, for other teams in a similar ‘nothing to play for’ situation, will the fans bother to come back? It makes maintaining interest from the public you’ve got hard, let alone building on it. And the reason for these gaps? A friendly international cup which hardly captured the imagination, and would have been better served if it or the mid-season break were moved to occur simultaneously. All the latest month off taught us was that the Thai national teams are a bit too good for the rest of South East Asia and not quite good enough for the big boys on the continent. I think we all knew that already. Hopefully someone organizing the league realizes this and from next season we can have a real singular season rather than several mini ones. It also makes it hard to sell you a tale of woe at not having seen a Port game in months when half the people reading this need a map to find their way back to the stadium after so long without a home game. So, with that out the way…
Port welcome Sukhothai to the PAT on Sunday evening. A relatively young team, even by Thai standards Sukhothai were only formed in 2009, taking up a position in the Northern regional league, they spent the first 6 years of their existence in the lower league as the kind of club that goes unnoticed till drawn in a cup fixture, at which point they tick all the boxes of interesting cup away day. Based in a location worthy of a trip away (ancient Buddhist kingdom in this case) with an oddball badge, kit and nickname. 2014 saw them win their league and fun away day was elevated to potential banana skin as they entered the second tier, however they didn’t hang round at that level and in their first season were promoted to the top league. At which point they set about making some major waves. They finished a more-than-respectable 7th and with the season ending before the FA Cup semi-finals could be played they were deemed joint winners. Which meant they were entered in a draw against Chainat and Ratchaburi for the play-off spot in the AFC Champions League. Their luck was in, and they were rewarded with a fixture against the champions of Myanmar Yadanarbon, who were dispatched 5-0. Which meant that just 3 seasons after playing third tier football they were off to face the mega stars of Shanghai SIPG, managed by former Chelsea and Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas and featuring Oscar, Hulk and a host of others assembled with little regard for the price tag. The fire bats had visa troubles which meant the team didn’t arrive together, and the weather didn’t favour them much either. The chances of anything but a heavily defeat looked slim, yet they came away with pride intact despite a 3-0 defeat that saw Oscar bag his first goal following his move from Chelsea to China.
That looks like the high point of the season, as their domestic campaign started poorly maybe due to second season syndrome (they also decided to sack former Port player and 2015 managerial merry go round rider Somchai Chuayboonchum, who led them last season). A poor start saw them settle in 16th for the majority of the first half of the season, climbing one spot to the safety of 15th with a solid mid-season run, which has given them a 7 points cushion over Sisaket in 16th. With a relatively tough run-in they’ll be hoping for 3 points on Sunday to increase their hopes of staying up. Whilst 3 points for Port would put them 9 points clear of Sukhothai and realistically 13 clear of Sisaket (assuming they beat Super Power), if those numbers become 3 and 10 respectively with a Sukhothai win and BEC were to beat Thai Honda, things start to look a little worrying for Port.
Players to Watch
Realistically there is only one.
I’ve barely mentioned thus far in this preview. Maranhao (29). The former Port player’s stock rose though the first half of the season without him even setting foot on the pitch. As attacking options available proved workmanlike, when they could be bothered to work, the idea of a player capable of scoring spectacular goals and beating the odd player (especially as both were seldom occurring) was always going to appeal. With the team at that point regularly picking up points, there seemed little worry of a relegation battle, while the top teams were clearly beyond our pay grade.
Then come the start of the second leg of the season it appeared Maranhao was back in favour as he started the first game away at Suphanburi, the situation that followed was comical. The end result, just as hope of the mercurial Brazilian bringing a bit of showmanship to the season seemed realistic, he was moved on to Sukhothai. At his new home, he has operated as more of a central attacker than a wide man. In 6 games for his new club he’s managed to score twice. He replaced Admir Adrovic who returned to his native Montenegro, finding navigating his path back to the Balkans somewhat easier than others who have recently left Thai football to undertake a similar journey. He had scored 9 goals before departing.
They also have Baggio (10) pulling the strings in midfield, although like the Tot(t)i at Bangkok Glass this one is also a knock off, in this case Jhon “Baggio” Rakotonomenjanahar. I think I’ll be sticking with “Baggio” after a couple of Leos on Sunday!
The final foreign starter is likely to be Ivorian Bireme Diouf (27). At just 5ft 7, with Maranhao the same height and Baggio standing at an incredible 5ft2, it means Sukhothai will likely start with neither the ‘Scary Foreign Striker’ or centre-back so favoured by most Thai teams. Bireme is somewhat of a journeyman of Thai football having arrived to play for M****Thong in 2006 and remained here for all but one season (spent at Yadanarbon). He has scored 8 goals this season.
The Fan’s View
Here’s Sukhothai fan Henry Kittikul Musa with his thoughts on the game…
Since both our teams last met, it’s been an uphill struggle to keep ourselves above the relegation zone, but so far we are doing exactly that. We’re currently only 1 place above the relegation zone but with that being said, we’re 7 points ahead of Sisaket who are a place below us. Before our loss to Bangkok United, we had gone 7 matches undefeated and things were starting to look quite good. After that, we did hit a bit of a slump with 3 straight losses to the likes of Bangkok United, Chiang Rai and Navy. Thankfully, we recorded a 1-0 win over Thai Honda just before the break.
One player who has played an influential role in our battle for survival is Ex-Port player, Maranhão. He’s been a game changer since the moment he arrived, scoring on his debut at home against Sisaket. He’s formed a strong relationship with Baggio and they seem to be able to read each others runs quite well. If it’s any consolation to Port fans, we had the exact same thing happen to us with Renan Marques. We sold him to Chonburi at the end of last season, as during his tenure at the club, his performance was largely overshadowed by other players such as Baggio and Bireme. This season alone, he’s put 22 goals behind the net for Chonburi and is currently the 3rd highest scorer in the league.
Coming back to Sunday’s match, it’ll be an important one for Sukhothai. At this late stage of the season, with only 9 matches remaining, every point is crucial. If we could come away from Sunday’s match with a point, I think everyone in the Sukhothai camp would be pleased. On paper, we haven’t had such a great run away from home with 2 wins, 3 draws and 6 losses. Our 2 away wins were against Thai Honda and Super Power. Whilst we managed to take a point away from some crucial matches against the likes of Bangkok Glass and Ratchaburi.
My prediction for Sunday’s match is, Thai Port 1-1 Sukhothai.
It looks to be a good match and I’ll be sure to make it to the game. The atmosphere at PAT Stadium never disappoints. Hopefully both teams put on their best performance and no matter which way the result ends up, I hope it’s an enjoyable match for all
Tom’s Starting XI – Two Question Marks
With Jim having missed the mid-mid-season friendlies, I thought I’d weigh in with my thoughts on team selection. It seems Zico is close to settling on his First XI, but he isn’t quite there yet. Defensive midfield and left back are still very much up for grabs.
In defensive midfield Zico has shown little love for Adisorn (13), phasing him out of the team and trying a few different options in his place. Ittipol (7) and Pummared (41) are the shortlisted candidates. Ittipol provides a cool, disciplined head in midfield, and is a technically superior footballer to both of his rivals. He is, however, 33 years of age and doesn’t seem anywhere near capable of playing a full 90 minutes. Pummared, on the other hand, is still in his mid-twenties and has no problem with his fitness. His positional discipline looked good against Bangkok Glass – his only competitive appearance for Port – so in the absence of enough evidence to really form an opinion, I’ll just say that I really hope he holds his position and covers his full-backs better than Adisorn. The jury is still out on his passing, too. Tim thinks he’s alright and I think he’s desperately lacking. He looks set to get the nod, anyway. Only time will tell!
At left back, it’s a three way battle between Panpanpong (19), Yossawat (28) and Jetjinn (51). You have to feel for Jetjinn, who appears to be coming third in a three man race despite performing excellently whenever called on so far. He scored a superb goal in the friendly against Suphanburi, too, surging forward from left-back, playing a neat one-two and finding the bottom corner with a calm right-footed finish. With Jetjinn very unlikely to get the nod, it’s between Panpanpong and Yossawat. Yossawat debuted in the clean-sheet against Bangkok Glass, putting in a positionally sound performance which didn’t offer much going forward, but kept things tight at the back. We know from what we’ve seen of him so far that Yossawat does have the attacking play in his arsenal, but is just a bit more selective of when to use it. Clearly he’s been watching Panpanpong bomb up the left wing, misplace simple passes and then jog back towards goal while his teammates – usually Rochela – try and rescue the situation. It seems like a no-brainer for me that Yossawat starts, but Zico has kept his cards close to the chest by giving them a start apiece in Port’s two friendlies. I’m plumping for Yossawat, and I really hope Zico does too.
In a forced change, Worawut is likely going to continue deputizing for Rattanai (17), who seems to have struggled more than expected recovering from the shoulder injury he picked up against Ubon.
Predicted Starting XI