As Thai League 1 reaches its final stretch, FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks closely at what could happen as the season approaches its climax.
33 days – just over a month – may seem like a short period of time.
But over the next 33 days, plenty can, and will be decided, in Thai League 1 starting on Wednesday, when all 18 clubs are in action in what is the beginning of a grueling run of fixtures to end the season.
The mid-season break, where teams could bring in reinforcements, is long over and there will be no more disruptions due to international football, meaning that – barring a couple of cup ties – full focus will be on the league, where teams are either looking to mount a late title challenge, secure an AFC Champions League berth, or preserve their top-flight status.
— ThaiLeague (@thaileague) September 5, 2018
With eight games left and 24 points still up for grabs over the next 33 days, at an average of a match every four days, just what is the current state of play in Thai League 1?
FOX Sports Asia takes a closer look.
Who’s leading the race at the moment?
Once again, it looks as though Buriram United will be crowned champions for a second successive season and the fifth time in the past six years.
The Thunder Castle currently hold a nine-point lead at the summit and, having only dropped points in six of their 26 matches, it will take a meltdown of epic proportions if they are to lose it from here.
On paper, a trip to Chiangrai United on Wednesday and another away game at Muangthong United on September 16 look to be the only matches where Buriram could slip up.
For the record, the former did beat Buriram 1-0 in their earlier meeting this season but Muangthong, for so long their biggest rivals, were handed a 4-0 thrashing back in May.
As ever, Brazilian striker Diogo has been a star with 26 goals to his name but he has been ably supported by Jakkaphan Kaewprom, Korrakod Wiriyaudomsiri and Yoo Jun-soo, while coach Bozidar Bandovic’s faith in youth has also paid off with the likes of Ratthanakorn Maikami, Sasalak Haiprakhon and Supachok Sarachat all rising to the occasion.
Does that mean there is no stopping the Buriram juggernaut?
Although – mathematically – Port, Muangthong, PT Prachuap and Chiangrai sitting in third to sixth position could all still catch Buriram, it is second-placed Bangkok United who are the only realistic challengers.
Unlike in 2017, when they were the top scorers in the league with 97 goals but were let down by a defence that conceded 57 goals, coach Mano Polking has done extremely well to address their issues at the back and they currently boast the second-best defensive record in the competition.
However, a dip in form a couple of months ago, where they were winless in six games in all competition, is likely to be their downfall.
Still, with Bangkok United set to be huge favourites in all their remaining matches barring their final-day clash with Muangthong, they should be at least looking to hold up their end of the bargain by picking up maximum points until then.
Even if the Angels do have to settle for a runners-up finish, they can be proud of a consistent and impressive campaign which has been highlighted by lynchpin Sumanya Purisay establishing himself as one of Thailand’s best midfielders.
With three ACL spots up for grabs, who will be representing Thailand in 2019?
Should Buriram go on to win the league, they will claim the automatic qualifying berth for the 2019 AFC Champions League and should once again pose a threat to the continent’s finest, having advanced out of a group consisting of Guangzhou Evergrande, Cerezo Osaka and Jeju United earlier this year before losing to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the Round of 16.
Bangkok United would be deserving entrants at the second preliminary round of qualifiers, having also entered the tournament at that stage in 2017 before losing to Johor Darul Ta’zim on penalties.
Yet, with only a six-point lead over third-placed Port, there is still work to be done for Polking’s charges.
The other qualifying berth usually goes to the champions of the FA Cup and Buriram, Chiangrai, Ratchaburi Mitr Phol and Sisaket are currently still in the running.
MATCHDAY!! – SCG Muangthong United vs. Chonburi FC – 8PM kickoff at the SCG Stadium. Tickets available from noon at the stadium. 📺 Match Broadcast on TrueSport 2 #MTUTD #Thaileague pic.twitter.com/ne7eqLKAwn
— Muangthong United FC (@MuangthongUtd) September 5, 2018
If Buriram win the FA Cup as well, the second runners-up would then get the nod and a mere six points currently separates Port, Muangthong, Prachuap and Chiangrai, meaning there is plenty to play for.
Who have been the surprise packages in 2018?
Without a shadow of a doubt, newly-promoted Prachuap, who are currently sitting pretty in fifth spot and have been one of the league’s most-exciting teams.
Foreign strikers Jonatan Ferreira Reis and Lonsana Doumbouya have been scoring for fun, combining for 31 goals so far, while Amorn Thammanarm – with eight goals – is the third-highest scoring Thai behind only Sumanya and Worachit Kanitsribampen.
Port have also improved significantly from 2017 although that was expected following the waves they made in the transfer market at the start of the season, bringing in established stars such as Dragan Boskovic, Nurul Sriyankem and Bordin Phala.
And, after flirting with relegation just two years ago, Pattaya United also deserve credit as they look set for a comfortable top-half finish for the second season running.
Which famous sides are in danger of going down?
Although in previous years, teams have been able to avoid the dreaded drop despite having one off season, the fact that five teams will be relegated in 2018 means that there is now increased danger.
Having lost 19 of their first 22 league games, and with just three wins to their names since then, bottom side Air Force Central are as good as gone.
Occupying the other relegation spots above them in ascending order are Ubon UMT United, Navy, Sukhothai and a fairly-recognisable name in Police Tero, who boast Myanmar international Aung Thu in their ranks.
Technically, with just eight points between Police and 7th-placed Pattaya, plenty of teams are only a few poor results away from finding themselves dragged into a dogfight, including clubs such as Chonburi and Bangkok Glass, who – not too long ago – were doing battle at the other end of the table.
In particular, the Glass Rabbits were genuinely in trouble earlier in the season but have since steadied the ship, although surviving the drop would hardly be consolation after they began 2018 with plenty of optimism.
Meanwhile, Chonburi may no longer be the team achieved successive top-three finishes from 2007 to 2014, including winning the league at the start of that spell, but they still have enough quality to be performing better.
GABRIEL TAN’S STANDOUT PERFORMERS OF THE YEAR… SO FAR
Player of the Year… so far: Sumanya Purisay (Bangkok United)
Foreign Player of the Year… so far: Diogo (Buriram United)
Young Player of the Year… so far: Worachit Kanitsribampen (Chonburi)
ASEAN Import of the Year… so far: Aung Thu (Myanmar)
Goalkeeper of the Year… so far: Michael Falkesgaard (Bangkok United)
Defender of the Year… so far: Andres Tunez (Buriram United)
Midfielder of the Year… so far: Sumanya Purisay (Bangkok United)
Striker of the Year… so far: Diogo (Buriram United)
Coach of the Year… so far: Thawatchai Damrong-Ongtrakul (PT Prachuap)