Indonesia’s Liga 1 hotting up

John Duerden John Duerden

There is not much debate as to what is the strongest league in Southeast Asia. Most would agree that this accolade goes to the Thai Premier League.

Standards have been improving in the Land of Smiles in recent years, at least among the bigger clubs. Muangthong United followed Buriram United’s earlier example of reaching the knockout stage in the Asian Champions Leagues; that place is still a distant dream for clubs in other countries in the region.

If Thailand is the best, it is not the most exciting as the league, like those of its neighbours, enters the final stretches. It would take a collapse of near-Urawa Reds proportions (the Japanese team let slip a ten-point lead with five games to go in the 2007 J-League season) for Buriram to miss out on the title.

In Malaysia, the mighty Johor Darul Tazim have long sewn up a fourth successive Super League crown while just across the Causeway, Albirex Niigata are on course to successfully defend last year’s Singapore title. Vietnam’s race is different with half the league involved, a situation that makes for excitement but is all a little too messy to find any focus or clarity.

This means that the title of the most exciting title race in the region -actually in Asia in general – in 2017 goes to Indonesia. Liga One has been number one in terms of drama, ins and outs and ups and downs. After no league in 2015 and no official league in 2016 due to a FIFA ban, it seems as if three seasons worth of excitement are being squeezed into a single campaign.
It all started with a string of sensational signings. The arrival of former English Premier League stars Michael Essien, Carlton Cole, Didier Zokora, Mo Sissoko and Peter Odemwingie captured the headlines. Their mixed fortunes continued to do so as the season got going but as time has passed, the focus has been on the league and not the stars and rightly so.

There are four games of the season remaining and five teams separated by five points. Big clubs like Persib, Persija and Arema are nowhere to be seen.

On top of the pile, but only just, are a new team. Bhayangkara are one of those police teams that can often be found in Southeast Asia. Formed in 2016 with the merging of Surabaya United and PS Polri, coach Simon McMenemy has done quite a job.

Unfashionable and watched by around three thousand every game, the Guardians have more than held their own against the bigger boys. A point clear at the top, if they win all four games, they will be champions.

It is not quite as simple as that however. All was looking rosier early in the month for a team that lacks stars but is tidy going forward and well-organised at the back. Successive defeats have cut the cushion to an uncomfortable single point. No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson famously labelled this stage of the season as ‘squeaky bum time’.

This is no time to stumble and if Bhayangkara lose a third game in a row at fifth-placed Madura United on Monday then there may be no coming back.

Bali United are breathing down the leader’s necks. The islanders have some serious firepower. Sylvano Comvalius has scored a crazy 32 goals in 30 games so far this season and without the Dutch-born destroyer, United would be well off the pace. It could be his knack for finding the net that makes the difference the pressure is well and truly on.

United’s penultimate game is at PSM, currently level on points in third,and there is no harder test in Indonesian football at the moment. PSM have bounced back right into the title race and their 2-0 win at Bhayangkara last week really opened things up.

Led by Dutch coach Robert Alberts, PSM have been nothing short of phenomenal at home, collecting 40 out of a possible 42 points. It will not have gone unnoticed that of all the five contenders, only this team have three of the last four games at home. If this streak continues then PSM will be the favourites.

Then there are Persipura two points back in fourth and Madura in fifth and five points behind the leaders. For the latter especially, chances are slim and slimmer still unless they take all possible points from the remaining games.

Any of the five could win though, obviously, it is hard to look past the top three. If Bhayangkara manage it, it will be a triumph of the underdog, one that is able to bounce back from two damaging defeats. It could be the free-scoring Bali or the relentless PSM.

With the league staggering the fixtures, almost every day from now until the end of the season, it feels like almost every day until November 12 is going to be full of drama and excitement.

After all the troubles fans have had to deal with in recent years, the 2017 title race is some compensation. It is the most exciting in Asia and, neutrals at least, will hope that it goes down to the wire.