(Headline Photo Credit: Buriram United)
The 2015 AFC Champions League (ACL) was a forgettable campaign for Southeast Asia as none of the regional representatives advanced beyond the group stage for the second successive year.
Automatic first round entrants Becamex Binh Duong and Buriram United fell at the first hurdle, while Chonburi, Bangkok Glass and Hanoi T&T could not overcome East Asian opponents in their respective final qualifying round playoffs.
Elimination was tough particularly for Buriram as the Thai giants went out on an inferior head-to-head record against eventual semi-finalists Gamba Osaka and Seongnam. That was despite them finishing level with the two teams on 10 points at the end of the group stage.
Despite the Thunder Castles’ early exit in 2015 – which was a far cry from their quarter-final showing two years back, they demonstrated how regular participation has allowed them to compete with the top clubs from China, Japan and South Korea.
The exposure gained has benefited the club as it allowed them to raise the bar of excellence in the domestic game through their unparalleled domestic dominance. This has indirectly raised the overall level of the Thai domestic league and subsequently the quality of the national team.
The unrivaled superiority of the Thai league on the pitch was apparent even in the ACL playoff rounds as their representatives Bangkok Glass and Chonburi comfortably dispatched second qualifying round opponents from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
The relative competence of the Thai teams will be a useful reference for their Vietnamese counterparts as they prepare for future editions. Unlike Thailand, Vietnam only regained an automatic spot in the ACL group stage in 2015, the first time in seven years.
It was a massive step up for the V-League representatives Binh Duong and Hanoi as they found the gulf between their league and those of the major East Asian nations a massive one to overcome. Hanoi learned it the hard way when they were overwhelmed by seven clear goals against K-League regulars FC Seoul in the final qualifying playoff.
V-League champions Becamex Binh Duong (in red) found the going tough against the likes of Kashiwa Reysol in the AFC Champions League group stage. (Photo Credit: Becamex Binh Duong)
Binh Duong also found the going tough as they only collected four points and finished bottom of their group. All the points were claimed at home as they secured a last-gasp draw with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and defeated a second-string Kashiwa Reysol side in the final group match.
They were otherwise overwhelmed by their stronger group opponents, especially in away matches. Playing in their first ACL since 2008, the lack of know-how in tackling tough opponents showed and the lessons learned could only help them as they prepare for a third ACL appearance in 2016.
Imports undoubtedly played an important role in helping the clubs retain some credibility despite the gulf in standards, especially when the locals struggled at the highest stage of Asian club football. Senegalese attacking midfielder Abbas Chiekh Dieng netted the equaliser against Jeonbuk in injury time, while Brazilian hotshot Gilberto Macena was prolific in front of goal for Buriram during the group stage.
While the Vietnamese struggled to make an impact, the Thais had a better account of themselves during the group stage as they also weighed in among the goals for Buriram in the first round.
Buriram United and Thailand right-back Theerathon Bunmanthan (right) was a local standout in the 2015 AFC Champions League. (Photo Credit: Buriram United)
Thailand international Theerathon Bunmanthan shone as the most outstanding Southeast Asian in the group stage. An ever-present for Buriram during the group stage, the right-back was a revelation with his dynamic contributions on both ends of the pitch.
It was his ability to strike from his sweet right foot in set-pieces that particularly stood out for the 25-year-old. A highlight was one of his two ACL goals, which came directly from a corner kick to give his team an early lead in the Thunder Castles’ home match against Gamba Osaka.
Despite the overall commendable performances of Theerathon and his club, the struggles of Binh Duong showed how easy it was still for stronger East Asian opponents to regard Southeast Asian clubs as cannon fodder for three points.
Hopefully the lessons learned in 2015 could have the two representatives improve their showing in 2016, and inspire the rest of the region to step up and push for places in the group stage as a collective stepping stone for a stronger regional presence in future ACL editions.