Despite being touted as one of the most competitive Thai League seasons ever, the 2017 rendition of Thailand’s premier football competition looks like it will conclude in a similar way to campaigns past.
The nation’s two superclubs, Muangthong United and Buriram United, look like they will occupy both of the AFC Champions League slots, and the latter is close to wrapping up the title race with four games remaining.
This return to the status quo is likely to particularly upset Muangthong’s fast-growing crosstown rivals Bangkok United, and newly-rich big spenders Chiang Rai United.
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Despite the immense expectation surrounding both sides, they have been unable to put a dent in the established power of the Thai League.
However, both of these clubs may have been handed a lifeline by a string of favorable results in the Thai FA Cup.
The winners of Thailand’s primary domestic cup are offered a place in the AFC Champions League qualifiers, and if that place is occupied by a team that has already qualified through the league, the additional qualifying slot will be handed to the team sitting in third place in the Thai League table.
Bangkok United have effectively confirmed themselves as the bronze-medalists behind the runaway title contenders, and Chiang Rai sit a further eight points behind them, but with a game in hand.
However, both sides have qualified for the semi-finals of the FA Cup, along with second-placed Muangthong United.
The final team in the quartet is none other than fourth division side JL Chiangmai, whose run this far in the competition is somewhat analogous to Lincoln City’s run in last year’s English FA Cup.
The semi-final draw puts Chiang Rai United against Muangthong, while Bangkok will be traveling to the home of the minnows from the north.
Victories for both capital clubs Bangkok and Muangthong would essentially confirm qualification for Bangkok United.
Chiang Rai will have to go all the way in the competition if they want to qualify for Asia’s premier competition. Nothing short of a miracle in the league
However, the Beetles will be slightly consoled by Muangthong’s poor record in the competition.
Despite being the second most successful team in the country, Muangthong have stunningly never won the competition, losing all three of the finals they have qualified for.
Hope remains for both Bangkok United and Chiang Rai United, who would cherish a place in the AFC Champions League as the perfect springboard for their rapid development as domestic superclubs.
The status quo may not have been broken yet, but Champions League qualification for either of these sides could be the key to breaking the Buriram and Muangthong duopoly that has dominated the league for the past decade.