A 0-0 home draw with Chinese side Shandong Luneng brought Buriram United’s miserable AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign to a close with their first point of the six Group F games.
Only a failure to garner that single point could have made things more disastrous as 2015’s heroes saw a turnaround in their fortunes so dramatic that no one could have seen this coming.
Last year, a formidable team unit with a strong cutting edge were top scorers in their group and finished in a three-way tie at the top on ten points.
An unfortunate exit followed due to a complex head-to-head rule, allowing Gamba Osaka and Seongnam FC to progress.
After last season’s all-conquering domestic campaign, Buriram fans must have expected a similar performance this year but the team has been exposed defensively and blunt in attack.
Andres Tunez’s penalty in a 2-1 defeat at FC Seoul was the team’s only goal this year.
By way of contrast, Buriram ended the 2015 group stage with a 5-0 victory at home to China’s Guangzhou R&F.
So where did it all go wrong?
Diogo Luis Santo was the best player in Thailand last season, scoring a record 33 league goals and also netting four times in the ACL group stage.
The former Olympiacos man was Buriram’s best hope of success this year in a tough group, again featuring South Korean, Japanese and Chinese opponents.
Just 13 minutes into Match Day One’s home game against FC Seoul, Diogo got wrong side of defender Osmar Ibanez and the defender’s clumsy attentions brought the Brazilian down.
An awkward fall led to a shoulder injury that has ruled Diogo out for the first half of the season.
That blow was compounded by the fact that the referee saw nothing wrong with Ibanez’s challenge.
The Spaniard stayed on the pitch and no penalty was awarded. Buriram promptly capitulated defensively and lost 6-0 – a worse start than anyone could have imagined.
While subsequent performances have done nothing to suggest that things might have been different had Diogo stayed fit and Ibanez had been penalised, it was a hugely damaging moment at the very start of the campaign.
The loss of Macena
When the Brazilian pairing of Diogo and Gilberto Macena came together in 2015, they immediately hit if off on the pitch. Macena was pacy, skilful and hard-working, while Diogo had a physical presence and cool finishing technique.
Their partnership was key to the impressive ACL campaign, with the two of them scoring seven of Buriram’s 12 goals between them.
But for reasons known only to club management, Macena was released at the end of the season as they sought an upgrade for a player who was on the wrong side of 30.
Something similar happened in 2014 when Carmelo Gonzalez was deemed to be over the hill.
The form of Diogo and Macena soon had fans forgetting Carmelo but this year, the transfer policy hasn’t worked out so well.
While losing two reliable performers from last year has hit Buriram hard, they have failed to replace them with players of similar quality.
In 2015, they announced the signing of Lazio’s Uruguayan striker Emiliano Alfaro to much fanfare. But the move fell through and Buriram looked elsewhere.
In came Andre Moritz, a player with an impressive profile, having recently played with Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers in the English Championship.
Moritz actually made it to Thailand and was seen on the pitch as a substitute in the 3-1 victory over Muang Thong United in the Kor Royal Cup – the season’s curtain-raiser.
But he was never seen again as Buriram released him, citing issues over his physical condition.
In the meantime, Kaio Felipe Goncalves had also come on board. The Brazilian had been playing in the K-League but his scoring record did not speak of someone who would score freely. And so it has proved with just one goal so far this year.
But that is one more than Weslley Feitosa, who has yet to score since his move from Busan IPark.
One of the newer recruits will no doubt have to make way in mid-season for the arrival of the next great hope – Bruno Moreira. The Portuguese’s recent scoring record suggests he may be the answer but it is much too late to save this year’s ACL campaign.
Buriram’s defensive shape was repeatedly pulled apart by opponents who moved more quickly and more smartly.
The usually reliable Tunez found himself unable to avoid being dragged down by the general malaise and the back three or four repeatedly found themselves exposed by the movement of the opposition.
Little protection was offered in midfield and in wide areas as the team seemed to be taken by surprise by the superiority of their rivals, resulting in soft goals.
Skipper Suchao Nutnum’s red card in the opener against FC Seoul summed up the match. The 32-year-old midfielder had been chasing shadows all game and lashed out in frustration.
While never again plunging the depths of that 6-0 humiliation, the Thais have regularly looked a step behind the opposition.
There seemed to be a lack of attention to detail on the training pitch or the Thai side simply underestimated their opponents – repeatedly.
The unbeaten domestic run in 2015 gave some the impression that this Buriram United side were indeed invincible. The fan base stretched all over the country and The Thunder Castle’s away trips were a big draw wherever they went.
Players came out to rock star receptions from opposition fans when they left stadiums, with second-choice right-back Narubadin Weerawatnodom a particular attraction for female fans.
When Tunez’s penalty sealed a 1-0 win against Cambodian side Boeung Ket Angkor in the Mekong Club championship in December, the club proudly boasted of winning five titles in the same year.
A domestic treble deserves credit but to add the Kor Royal Cup and Mekong Club championship to the list seemed to be stretching credibility and smacked of hubris.
Perhaps the players started to believe their own hype and perhaps the close season work did not focus enough on how much better they wanted to be in 2016.
Head coach Alexandre Gama now has a fight on his hands to lift the players, with stronger competition in the Premier League of Thailand (PLT). Much improvement will be required if Buriram are to get a shot at redemption in next year’s ACL.