Chanathip, Muangthong still have a lot to prove

The day of destiny for Chanathip Songkrasin is approaching.

In July, the star will leave to join Japan’s Consadole Sapporo and it is a big deal for himself, Thai football, Japanese football and Southeast Asian football. Before he does head east – and quite a bit north – he has a job to do.

On Wednesday, the Thai international will line up just north of Bangkok for Muangthong United against Brisbane Roar in the Asian Champions League knowing that a win against the Australians will put the Kirins in the knockout stage for the first time in their history.

Chanathip should need no introduction to any fan of Asian football but because he plays in Southeast Asia, there are those at either end of the continent with little awareness. There is a feeling that the region in the middle is not anything to be overly concerned about.

There has been no Southeast Asian team at the World Cup since 1938 when Indonesia made it as Dutch East Indies. That means that by the time Russia comes around, that absence will have stretched to 80 years. In the modern era, Southeast Asia and the World Cup are complete strangers. There has been little impact at the Asian Cup either.

On the club scene, BEC Tero Sasana were surprise runners-up in the inaugural Asian Champions League in 2003 when only 16, not the present 32, competed. They were helped immensely by the fact that all of their games, except the first leg of the final in Al Ain, took place in Bangkok.

Add to that the point that there have not been, or have rarely been, Southeast Asian players who have become well-known outside their own region then it means that overall then there has been little to write back to Jakarta, Hanoi or Kuala Lumpur about.

Such a track record has not impressed the rest of the continent which has led East Asia, West Asia and the other regions not to take that much notice of Southeast Asia.

Chanathip has the power to change that, at least a little, or more accurately, he has the talent to do so.

Chanathip: A small force for change?

There are few in Asia with the talent that the diminutive star has. The ball sticks to those magical feet, he can beat a man or take him out the game with a pass and it is that vision, as well as the skill to execute, which makes him a special player.

The immediate priority is to lead Muangthong past Brisbane on Wednesday. When the draw was made for Group E and Brisbane, Ulsan Horangi and Kashima Antlers found themselves placed with the Thai champions, few would have been unduly worried.

Now, they all sit behind Muangthong in the standings. After four games, United have eight points. They are following the classic formula for tournament success –win at home and draw away.

Under coach Totchawan Sripan, Muangthong are not top by accident. They have deserved every point they have collected. It is something of a novelty, and an important one, that Brisbane are underdogs and probably would be if they had more than one point and were in better shape.

Now it is time to close the deal. It is not just Chanathip but Teerasil Dangda, a prolific striker. There is also the best full-back pairing in Asia (and Asia is a full-back factory) in Tristan Do and Theerathon Bunmathan. Goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan is one of the best on the continent and there is a strong spine runs throughout the team.

Muangthong should make it and become the second Thai team to reach the knockout stage in five years, following Buriram United’s run in 2013.

That is not a bad record given the fact that Southeast Asia is starved of representation in the Champions League. There is something wrong when Muangthong are the region’s only horse in this race while countries like Korea, Japan and UAE have four each.

That is why getting to the last 16 is so important and that is why Chanathip needs to be at his best on Wednesday.

And after that, he has another big part to play. In July, the playmaker will head to the J.League and Sapporo. There have been a few Southeast Asian players of late who have gone to Japan’s top tier as part of the J.League’s drive to increase its popularity in the ASEAN region. None have made an impact.

Chanathip can change all that. He can be the one who shows that Southeast Asia possesses talent that can go and shine anywhere on the continent.

Messi Jay has a big role to play in Japan, on and off the pitch.

But if he can first inspire his current team to the knockout stage then it will be a small step for Muangthong but a giant one for Thailand and South-east Asian football.