While Tottenham Hotspur coach Mauricio Pochettino may not think very highly of the League Cup, silverware is silverware, and Port’s potentially “rotated” lineup belies their true ambition to win the competition. It is certainly true that the FA Cup holds more significance in that it comes with the added bonus of Champions League qualification, but the Klongtoey side will be looking for something to fill the trophy cabinet as soon as possible to vindicate Madame Pang’s winter shopping.
Port’s opposition, however, are likely to make no secret of their desire for a good cup run. Sukhothai sat in the Champions League places after matchday five, and were looking to put together their best ever Thai League season…before everything collapsed around them and their coach was obviously and inevitably scapegoated with an unjustified sacking.
That being said, Sukhothai still present a threat, especially going forward. Witnessing them recently in an enthralling 7-goal encounter at the SCG Stadium, it is clear that the Bats’ (is that what they’re called?) biggest strength lies in their ability to beat defenses at breakneck speed, soaking up pressure and counter-attacking to devastating effect.
Their front three, which consists of Malagasy forwards Njiva Rakotoharimalala and John Baggio (whose actual name is Baggio Rakotonomenjanahary, for those already having trouble), as well as El Salvadorian striker Nelson Bonilla. It’s a forward line that is very unique, and not just because of where the players hail from. Aged 26, 25 and 27 respectively, Sukhothai’s foreign contingent are amongst the youngest in the league and are reaching the prime of their careers, not helplessly sliding past it on the way to obscurity.
As for how Port should deal with this, their experience from approximately 96 hours before kickoff should help them greatly. While Jaja has struggled to hit a barn door this season, and continued that woeful struggle at the PAT Stadium, Heberty’s constant runs stretched the Port defense in a similar way to how the three forwards with a combined 63 letters in their names might do. Despite racing to a lead in their recent encounter with Muangthong, they eventually ran out of steam and surrendered all three points.
Under previous coach Pairoj Borwonwatanadilok (just when you thought surnames couldn’t get any more complicated), Sukhothai aim to play a high defensive line, as they did at the SCG Stadium, closing the spaces for the opposition’s creative players and making it easier to play long, sweeping out-balls to the pacey forwards. Assuming they do this again, this could be a good tactic to frustrate Port’s creative talents in advanced midfield positions. However, this relies on high pressing midfielders and defenders who can track back at pace, something that will take a toll on the team by the time the second half rolls around.
As such, this probably isn’t a game where Suarez, Pakorn or Nurul are likely to have a happy outing. In a move that could double as an energy-saver for Saturday’s trip to Ratchaburi, Port should instead opt to fight fire with fire by deploying pacy wingers Terens Puhiri and Bodin Phala, with only one of the “creative trinity” (have Port fans ever called them that?) needed to drop deep and pick up the ball when the forwards’ desire to press begins to wane.
Unfortunately, the side may have very little option but to play Dragan Boskovic down the middle, given the lack of viable backup options. Port should have considered keeping ahold of Bajram Nebihi, even if only for cup games, as he could offer coach Jadet a very different approach, in order to catch teams off-guard in these crucial one-off matches.
In terms of defense, Nitipong tucking in alongside Rochela and Elias Dolah should be enough to contain the three forwards, with Kim Sung-Hwan shielding the area between them. Kevin was cancelled out at the weekend by Tristan Do, but with Njiva playing on his left and Baggio habitually drifting into the middle, he should have very little hindrance in bombing up the field as he does on his best days.
In action, Port’s formation could look a little something like this…
Solid Line = Runs
Dotted Line = Passes
Circle = Occupy Defenders
Tim’s description of Port’s most recent game against Muangthong as a match that “had started out as a cagey tactical battle descended into the pure chaos of an U11s game,” may also apply to their next encounter…but this time, that breakdown may be something Port can ill-afford.
If they play their cards right, Port should have enough quality to sweep Sukhothai away. However, the attacking talent the visitors possess absolutely can’t be underestimated, even by the strongest teams in the division.
Port FC vs Sukhothai FC, Toyota League Cup R1 – Wednesday 13 June, 19:00 at PAT Stadium. Televised on True Sport 6.