(Headline Photo Credit: Muangthong United)
Muangthong United kept Thailand’s – and Southeast Asia’s – flag flying high in the AFC Champions League on 26 April when they defeated Australian side Brisbane Roar 3-0 at home in their penultimate group stage game to secure a place in the round of 16.
The victory was a significant moment as Southeast Asia is making its presence felt in continental club competitions this decade. It will be the first time in four years where there will be a regional club in the Champions League knockout rounds after another Thai club, Buriram United, reached the quarter-finals in 2013.
In between the two notable elite Asian club competition campaigns, Malaysian club Johor Darul Ta’zim became the first non-Middle East team to win the second-tier AFC Cup in 2015. This came after other Southeast Asian clubs came close only to be stopped in the semi-finals in past editions.
AseanBola takes a look at the common areas where the three Southeast Asian clubs have made an indelible mark against tough competition in continental club action in recent seasons.
A Strong Local Nucleus
In all these success stories, there is a strong local starring cast that forms the nucleus. Muangthong boast several leading Thai internationals who are headlining their most successful Champions League outing so far.
Kawin Thamsatchanan has conceded only one goal in five group matches, the least among all the participating clubs in the group stage. Opposing defences are having a tough time dealing with Theerathon Bunmathan’s deadly set-piece taking.
The Thai champions show they are more than just a one-trick team, with multiple threats going forward. Chanatip Songkrasin has shone with his influential midfield displays, while Teerasil Dangda’s two goals has contributed six out of 11 points in the group stage.
Buriram could count on a similar stellar Thai core in their 2013 Champions League run, with Theerathon again playing a key role from attacking set plays. Captain Suchao Nuchnum was supported in centre midfield by Charyl Chappuis, while the seasoned Sukha brothers, Suree and Surat, provided experience and steel at the back.
The Johor class of 2015 could depend on the individual brilliance of Safiq Rahim to pull the strings in attacking midfield. Supporting the skipper at the back were ever-reliable defenders Aidil Zafuan Adha and S. Kunalan, while Safee Sali demonstrated his lethal touch with four goals in the campaign.
Impressive Import Showing
While a strong local core has been fundamental in providing the backbone of the clubs in these campaigns, equally important is the acquisition of quality imports to strengthen the side and level up against clubs from more established leagues outside of Southeast Asia.
The acquisitions of former South Korean World Cup player Lee Ho and well-travelled Brazilian defender Celio dos Santos has been key to Muangthong’s defensive solidity. Together with Japanese centre-back Naoki Aoyama, the trio has formed an Iron Wall in front of Kawin in Asia.
The contribution of experienced Spanish forward Xisco on the other end of the pitch is equally important as he has scored two goals, including the injury-time winning goal against Kashima Antlers, in the competition.
Buriram’s acquisition of Spanish defender Osmar Barba half a season before proved to an inspired one in the 2013 Champions League. The former Racing Santander centre-back helped them earn three clean sheets in the tournament and chipped in with three goals from attacking set-pieces as they reached the last eight.
Argentine striker Luciano Figueroa’s high work-rate could not be underestimated as he helped the Malaysian champions clinch their first major international silverware in 2015. His lethal finishing inside the box produced five goals, and his willingness to hold the ball up in the face of brutal challenges made him an invaluable team player in the AFC Cup success.
Favourable Fortunes in Tournament Draws
As strong as the complement of local and foreign players is in the Southeast Asian club roster, the fortunes in Asian club competition is also dependent on the luck of the draw. Many regional clubs fall to grief in the Champions League group stage and AFC Cup latter rounds owing to the overwhelming strength of the opposition.
Kawin and Teerasil felt that pain in Muangthong’s previous appearance in 2013 when they could only collect one point in six matches. Their opponents? A Marcelo Lippi-led Guangzhou Evergrande of China who would eventually become champions, tournament regulars Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea.
Meanwhile Buriram had the better rub of the green at the first hurdle, losing only one game to finish as group runners-up. Among their group opponents, J.League side Vegalta Sendai and Chinese club Jiangsu Sainty (now Jiangsu Suning) were making their maiden appearances in the tournament.
In the round of 16, Uzbekistani club Bunyodkor were a pale shadow of their free-spending prowess in the late 2000s. However Iranian giants Esteghlal were simply too strong for Buriram in the next round.
Four years on, among Muangthong’s group opponents this time, only Club World Cup runners-up Kashima are regular faces. Despite winning the Champions League in 2012, this season sees Korean side Ulsan Hyundai make only their second competition appearance, while this is A-League side Brisbane Roar’s third showing.
Before the AFC Cup followed the Champions League in keeping the East and West Zones apart until the final in 2016, the annual mid-season draws from the quarter-finals onwards were open lotteries. The number of times Southeast Asian sides had gotten the better of their Middle East counterparts in the knockout games can be counted with one hand.
In 2015, Johor were drawn against Hong Kong side South China AA in the last eight and overcame them over two legs. Although they next faced Kuwaiti side Al-Qadsia in the semi-finals and lost the first leg, an external event would turn the fortunes in their favour.
Kuwait’s (still ongoing) suspension from world football governing body FIFA meant the national and club sides could no longer participate in international competitions. That effectively threw the two clubs out of the AFC Cup and set up a Johor-FC Istiklol final.
While Istiklol had a decent run in the West Zone, another Malaysian side Pahang FA managed to defeat them at home in spite of a losing overall aggregate. The closeness in strength between the two finalists meant the final was a tight affair than a potentially otherwise lopsided Southeast Asia-Middle East showdown.
The successes of the three Southeast Asian clubs on breaking through in Asian club competitions show that through shrewd recruitment and organisation, as well as the good fortune of the draw, even the underdogs can have a good bite of the cherry under favourable circumstances in spite of the intense competition.