John Duerden believes Buriram United can go on to win the AFC Champions League if they manage to see off Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the Round of 16 on Tuesday.
On Tuesday evening, fans in northeast Thailand will have their eyes on the southwest of the Korean peninsula. It is a battle between bibimbap and pad thai, a clash between the powerhouses of two Asian nations.
Thailand is the only country in the entire 2018 AFC Champions League that still has 100 per cent of their original representatives in the continental tournament, although Buriram United are the only Thai team that entered the competition proper (Muangthong United and Chiangrai United were both eliminated in the qualifying playoffs).
The city of Jeonju could be immortalised in the history books of Southeast Asian football – if all goes according to plan. The first leg of the Round of 16 clash with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors ended 3-2 last week and to say the tie is finely-poised is as obvious as saying that summers in Buriram can get a little hot.
It was the kind of game that knockout tournaments are made for, an exciting clash with two teams looking to get the upper hand and both believing it is possible.
If there was any doubt of the standard that Buriram can reach, they were dispelled especially in the first half when they were simply excellent: aggressive, composed, confident and energetic. The only blemish was the obvious last-minute strike from Son Jun-ho that turned 3-1 into 3-2. Those two away goals will have made the journey back northeast a lot more comfortable for the Motors.
Jeonbuk underestimated their opponents and, while that will not be the case in the second leg, the Koreans will be confident of doing what they need to get through. There has been a mention of the 2011 Champions League when Jeonbuk were disappointed to lose the first leg of their quarter-final 4-3 at Cerezo Osaka. In the return match, the Motors ran over the Japanese team with a 6-1 thrashing.
And many would agree. Jeonbuk are a genuine Asian powerhouse, no team has played as many Champions League games as the boys in Green. The titles in 2006 and 2016, an unlucky defeat in the final of the 2011 edition, Jeonbuk enjoy the tournament and expect to do well. They have come to dominate the K-League and were one of the best performers in the group stage, one of the few teams that looked as if they has what it takes to go all the way and lift the title in November.
15 พ.ค. 61 (ACL-16 นัดที่สอง)ชุนบุค ฮุนได มอเตอร์ส VS บุรีรัมย์ ยูไนเต็ด#เวลาไทย 17:00 น. สนาม ชอนจู เวิลด์คัพ…
With most of the Korean national team defence, Lee Jae-sung in the middle – one of the best midfielders in Asia – and the likes of Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook in attack, Jeonbuk are solid all the way through. Jeonbuk may have lost 3-0 at home to Pohang Steelers at the weekend at home but rested most of their stars and are still seven points clear at the top of the K-League.
And this is precisely why Buriram knocking out Jeonbuk would be a signal that Buriram have what it takes to go all the way. BEC Tero Sasana (now Police Tero) made it to the final in 2003 only to lose, a little unluckily, to Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates. But the 2018 version of the Champions League is more than a little different to that of 15 years ago. The tournament has changed almost as much as football in Buriram has changed. The overall standards are a great deal higher, the strength runs much deeper and it is much more of a slog.
After Jeonbuk, there would be nothing to fear for Buriram. Shanghai SIPG were as impressive as the Koreans in the group stage and have what it takes but lost 3-1 in their first leg at Kashima Antlers. With the likes of Hulk, Oscar and Wu Lei, the Chinese big-spenders will be a threat if they survive.
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But if you can beat Jeonbuk then you can beat anyone. In the eastern half of the draw, Guangzhou Evergrande, not as strong as in the recent past, Tianjin Quanjian or the Korean duo of Ulsan Hyundai and Suwon Samsung Bluewings would be tough but nothing to fear. Over in the West, Al Duhail of Qatar are looking good but, once you get to the final, anything can happen.
Buriram can make it. The second leg is going to be the biggest test the club has had ever. History beckons. Buriram have established themselves as a giant in Southeast Asia but there is another level available. All they have to do is take the step, a small one in football terms – just avoid defeat over 90 minutes – but a giant leap for Thailand and Southeast Asia..
If Buriram triumph on Tuesday then they can go on and win the trophy.